Geoffrey Nunberg, Expert on How Language Works, Dies at 75



Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist whose elegant essays and books explained to a general audience how English has adapted to changes in politics, popular culture and technology, died on Aug. 11 at his home in San Francisco. He was 75.

Kathleen Miller, his wife, said the cause was glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer.

Mr. Nunberg’s fascination with the way people communicate found expression in acclaimed books like “Going Nucular: Language, Politics, and Culture in Confrontational Times” (2001); in scholarly work in areas like the relationship between written and spoken language; and in lexicography — he was chairman of the usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary.

He was one of a small group of linguists, among them Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker, renowned beyond their academic universes.

“I always saw him as the paragon of public intellectualism,” the linguist Ben Zimmer, who writes a column on language for The Wall Street Journal, wrote in an email. “He was a lucid, effective communicator about thorny linguistic issues for many decades.”

His scholarly work covered a broad range of subjects, including semantics and pragmatics — the context in which language is used — as well as information access, language policy, multilingualism and the cultural implications of digital technology.

“He was very interested in the nature of written language and its relationship to spoken language, and his work on that has been very influential,” Mark Liberman, a professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, said in a phone interview.

Professor Liberman noted that although spoken language developed before it was written, “Geoff’s contribution was pointing out that in every tradition, written language has its own principles, its own rules and its own patterns that aren’t just ways of encoding spoken language.”

The rigor that characterized Mr. Nunberg’s academic research also fueled his writing and commentary on popular subjects.

In the title essay of “Going Nucular,” he pondered why President George W. Bush pronounced “nuclear” that way. He suggested that Mr. Bush knew the right pronunciation (perhaps having learned it from his father, President George Bush) but had picked up the wrong one from “Pentagon wiseguys” or used it as a “faux bubba thing” to tweak the “Eastern dweebs” he had known when he attended Phillips Academy and Yale.

In “Ascent of the A-Word: Assholism, the First Sixty Years” (2012), Mr. Nunberg analyzed the history and use of a word that turns funny, nasty or provocative when it is applied to someone’s character rather than someone’s body.

It is, he wrote, “a word we reserve for members of our own tribe: the boss who takes credit for your work, the neighbors who get on your case for putting out your garbage the night before, or maybe a well-known politician or celebrity.”

His other books include three collections, “The Way We Talk Now” (2001), “The Years of Talking Dangerously” (2009), and “Talking Right” (2006), about the way Republicans and conservatives have transformed political language.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Nunberg is survived by his sister, Barbara Nunberg, and his daughter, Sophie Nunberg. His marriage to Anne Fougeron ended in divorce.

In the late 1990s, Mr. Nunberg turned his linguistic focus to the long debate over the use of Redskins as the name for Washington’s National Football League team. He testified on behalf of a group of Native Americans to the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board of the United States Patent and Trademark Office, bringing evidence that the name was disparaging.

“You can say you don’t mean it as a slur,” he told The Northwest Herald of Woodstock, Ill., in 2001. “But that doesn’t change the meaning of the word.”

Although the board canceled the trademarks covering the Redskins name, a federal judge reinstated them in 2003. The case ended in 2017, when the Supreme Court ruled that potentially disparaging trademarks are protected by the First Amendment.

Last month, however, the team dropped the name under pressure from sponsors.

“Geoff was ahead of his time on the Redskins issue,” Mr. Zimmer said. “I’m glad he lived long enough to see the Redskins name fall by the wayside, even if it didn’t happen in the courts.”



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