Coulter H. George / Classics

Coulter George of the Classics Department teaches a course on the evolution of Indo-European linguistics.  Taking inspiration from Plato and his legendary symposium Coulter propose a series of dinners at which students will gather for themed discussions. As a springboard for discussion. each week a student must make a short speech on an element of speech, whether it be the words for kin or the ancient names of God, one of which is reputed to be Harold, as in “Our Father, who art in Heaven, Harold be thy name.”

When I look back on my own undergraduate days and recall the settings during which I got to know my professors the best—the professors who would continue as my mentors through my graduate school days and beyond—it is invariably the social bond of eating together that comes to mind: regular Stammtisch in one of the student dining halls with the German faculty on Wednesdays, with the Classics club on Thursdays, and the end-of-semester celebratory meal with my Sanskrit class at an Indian restaurant. Now, the class I teach that would gain the most from greater interaction with students is my introduction to Indo-European linguistics, that is, the reconstruction of the hypothetical proto-language that gave rise to most of the modern languages of Europe and India. Sadly, though, there are no Proto-Indo-European restaurants in the area, as people perhaps unsurprisingly prefer eating real food to the theoretical variety. Thus, since the idea cannot be given further definition through recourse to a particular cuisine, I turn instead to Plato for inspiration, in particular to his Symposium. In this dialogue, the participants decide that rather than going on a complete drinking free-for-all, they’ll stay relatively sober and give impromptu speeches on a particular topic, in this case, Love. It is this idea of themed conversation that, I think, could turn what otherwise runs the risk of aimlessness into something more memorable. Since the general idea of the course is to understand thousands of years of prehistory behind the modern languages of Europe and India, I would propose that, each week that we met, we would pick a different field of words to explore—words for kin, for animals, names of gods, and the like—and the students present could each, in turn, give a short speech on one element of that set. As the course itself invariably has to focus on the nitty-gritty of sound changes, noun and verb endings, and syntax, it would be excellent to have a forum for relaxed conversation about the relationship of Jupiter to Zeus (both gods’ names are ultimately the same), or the taboo that caused the Germanic languages to replace the inherited word for bear with one that simply means “the brown one.” I also emphasize that I would be asking for a speech, rather than a talk or a presentation: as the idea is to promote conversation, the students would be encouraged to use the word in question as a springboard for relevant tangents, and not expected to stick to the strictly academic.

Cost estimate – 12 meetings × 10 participants × $15 / meal = $1800