North American Scholar
MESSING, Gordon Myron
A.B. Harvard, 1938; A.M., 1940; Ph.D., 1942.
- Professional Experience:
Instr. Latin, Bowdoin, 1945-6; asst. prof. classics, chairman, dept. comparative philology University of Wisconsin, 1946-7; mem. diplomatic staff State Dept, 1947-65; attaché American embassy, Vienna, Austria, 1947-53; Athens, Greece, 1955-60; Reykjavik, Iceland, 1962-5; asso. prof. classics, Cornell, 1967-71; prof. classics & linguistics, 1971-87; sr. fellow, NEH, 1973-4.
“De consonantibus quae laryngophoni vocantur praecipue quod ad linguam graecam attinet” (Harvard, 1942); seeHSCP 53 (1942) 176-7
“Remarks on Anthimus De observatione ciborum,” CP 37 (1942) 150-8; “Selected Studies in Indo-European Phonology,” HSCP 56-57 (1947) 161-232; “The Etymology of Greek ὁ ἡ το δεῖνα,” Language (1947) 207-11; “Laryngeal before sonant by L. L. Hammerich,” Glotta 31 (1948-1951) 247-50; H.W. Smyth, Greek Grammar, rev. by Messing (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1956). REVS: JHS LXXIX 1959 193-194 Jones | CJ LVII 1961 133-134 Swanson; “The Etymology of Lat. Mentula,” CP 51 (1956) 247-9; “Sound Symbolism in Greek and Some Modern Reverberations,” Arethusa 4 (1971) 5-23; “Pound's Propertius. The Homage and the Damage,” in Studies in honor of James Hutton (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975) 105-33; “The Status of [ae:] in Attic Greek,” ICS 1 (1976) 1-6; “On Weighing Achilles' Winged Words,” Language 57 (1981) 888-900; A Glossary of Greek Romany, As Spoken in Agia Varvara (Athens), (Columbus, OH: Slavic, 1988).
Gordon Messing was a gentleman of profound and far-ranging learning, a lover of books, a wonderfully eccentric family man, and one of the most fair-minded and humane colleagues one could hope to have, even though his old-fashioned and outspoken political conservatism often dismayed students and faculty. Gordon understood better than most how to see even those with whom he profoundly disagreed as individuals whose welfare should be protected, not as manifestations of an ideology to be crushed if the opportunity arose. He lent his support to all his colleagues in their times of personal and professional troubles. Messing’s education seemed clearly to mark him for the academic world. He graduated from Shortridge High School in Indianapolis and entered Harvard as a Conant Fellow in 1934. He graduated summa cum laude in Classics and received his Ph.D. in 1942, at the age of 25. Gordon wrote his dissertation on Indo-European laryngeal theory, under the direction of the great Joshua Whatmough. While the Latin of his dissertation linked him to an age that was passing, his reference, in Latin, to Greek as “ancient Greek” put him ahead of most present-day Classicists, who, to the confusion of students, still style courses in ancient Greek “Greek,” and those in the contemporary language “Modern Greek.” The detail is important. For Gordon had spent the year following his A.B. degree, on the eve of the Second World War, visiting Europe on a Harvard Traveling Fellowship before pursuing his graduate work. It was then that his passion for current vernaculars and their cultural environments began to match his enthusiasm for ancient languages and philology. Significantly, when he was recalled from retirement at Cornell to teach Greek in 1988, it was to teach Modern, not Ancient Greek. Indeed, Gordon’s long monograph about Modern Greek gypsy dialects was the product of his final years at Cornell. Gordon spent the four years following his Ph.D. degree in the U.S. Army. He served with the Western Task Force in North Africa, with the Fifth Army Headquarters in North Africa and Italy, and with the USFA in Austria, and was awarded the Bronze Star Medal. Yet the academic in him remained intact. He was fond of telling how he met the philosopher Benedetto Croce in Naples, devastated by war, and searched the whole city for some suitable book to offer him as a present. He found only an old edition of Propertius. Croce appreciated it and reciprocated with one of his own books. He left academia in 1947 and spent the next twenty years in the United States Foreign Service, taking early retirement in 1967. In keeping with the curious parallelism of his double career and his intellectual interests, however, his most widely-known scholarly work among classicists, his revised edition of Smyth’s A Greek Grammar for Colleges, was published during his foreign service years. His new edition is still the most complete descriptive Grammar of Ancient Greek in the English language. Unfortunately, in some ways, his revisions, while adapting the original to modern scholarship, were made just before the publication of definitive texts of the recently deciphered Mycenaean Greek. Yet no one has yet stepped in to revise Gordon’s revisions. When Gordon came to Cornell, then, he may have been resuming a career in teaching, but he was continuing a career of publication. Indeed, around a third of his more than a hundred publications appeared before his official return to academia. Those who knew the tweeded, conservative Gordon of Goldwin Smith Hall found it hard to imagine the other Gordon who spoke or read around a dozen modern languages, and not only conversed with gypsies on the outskirts of Athens, but catalogued their vocabulary. He was, indeed, very much a linguist in an older, polyglot tradition, profoundly learned in literature of all epochs, a menace to visiting lecturers who misquoted a line of Byron, Pound or Elytis or commented incautiously upon the Russian novel. Language enthralled him not only as a phenomenon in and of itself, but as the vehicle of human expression, be it lofty poetry or lowly conversation. So did music. He and Florence loved all kinds of music and could sing, very ably, popular songs from many lands and many ages (and in many languages). It was always a delight to hear them singing an old French song of Mistinguette’s, or a Neapolitan song by Murolo. Although Gordon’s own Modern Greek was replete with archaisms, he championed the teaching of demotic Greek at Cornell even after his retirement. It would have saddened him greatly to know that his most popular contribution to the Classics Department curriculum, “Modern” Greek, did not stay among its offerings for long after his death. He remains the first and last scholar holding a regular, professorial appointment, to teach Modern Greek at Cornell.
WhAm 46 (1990-1) 2256; Who's Who in the East (1994); DAS 8,3: 352.
- Author: Pietro Pucci