restricted access Henry Kahane
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Henry Kahane

Henry R. Kahane was born on November 2, 1902, in Berlin, Germany, ‘an Austrian in the German world’ (Kahane 1992b:40).* He was raised in the intellectually stimulating world of theatre and literature and it was there that he began his formal academic life with Literaturwissenschaft, gradually moving into Romance linguistics. Henry was drawn to linguistics, ‘attracted by the magnetic personality of Ernst Gamillscheg, a trail-blazing genius, who, up to his death in 1971, was inexhaustible in linguistic themes and explanations and, despite political flings, of an incorruptible professional objectivity’ (ibid.). Gamillscheg was to have a multifold impact on Henry’s life. It was in this professor’s seminar, in 1927, that Henry met Renée, née Toole, of Irish ancestry born in Cephalonia, Ionian Island. It was through Renée’s influence that Henry developed his interest in Mediterranean studies. Two other European scholars who also left an indelible impact on Henry in relating language and history were Max Leopold Wagner (1880–1962) and Gerhard Rohlfs (1892–1986).

The lives of Henry and Renée were a unique blend of harmony, mutual dedication, and utter devotion—they were an inseparable academic pair. What mattered above all was their commitment to their chosen scholarly fields. The two transmitted their intellectual earnestness and intense curiosity to their colleagues across disciplinary boundaries. The Kahanes’ lives revolved around room 427 in the University of Illinois Library Building. Their schedule was watch-settingly predictable: at 9 a.m., at 12 noon, and at 5 p.m. one would see them going to and fro from home to the office, every day, all week long except the occasional Sunday. The lifestyle of the Kahanes was observed by generations of colleagues, students, and academic administrators with a keen interest, almost bordering on envy. It represented ‘a unique, enviable example of the perfect reconcilability, for both husband and wife between a rich and balanced family life and the rigor and austerity of advanced research’.1

Who contributed what to their list of joint scholarly research is difficult to determine. Once when confronted with this question, Henry’s answer was, ‘my wife has the ideas and I write them’. And, as one would expect, Renée retorted, ‘I think that is not right’. Henry was quick to clarify: ‘Teamwork is a very complicated thing. As ideas develop, one gives one thing and the other changes it, and then the first one again’. 2 This was indeed the secret of the Kahanes’ harmonious and productive relationship as scholars and as two delightful individuals.

In his inimitable way, Henry summed up their research agendas of fifty years in most succinct words:

If we look back, then, after fifty years, the emigration evolved as the dominant event in our lives, as it did with many of our fellow refugees. . . . We became, and we remain, pre-War Europeans ever trying to grow into Americans. This complex process of adaptation is latent also in our work: the diachronic, historical world view, instinctive with the European humanists of our generation, clashes, time and again, with the American impulse to explain in the synchronic terms of system and structure; and we believe that a blend of the two approaches has become the mark of analyses. We are linguists, cultural [End Page 237] linguists and sociolinguists, and therefore inclined to formulate the big questions of life in terms of language.

In 1931, after Renée completed her dissertation on the morphological problem of the augmentative feminine in Romance, the Kahanes were married in Greece. Their marriage ‘created one of the most remarkable cases of cooperation of two scholars’ (Zgusta 1993:45; see also Zgusta 1994). This collaboration is evident in almost all of their books, scholarly papers, and reviews. There is one word that encapsulates the relationship of Renée and Henry—she was Henry’s ardhānginī, a Sanskrit word that means an inalienable half of the body, a wife.3

In May 1938, Henry was imprisoned for a week in Florence, Italy when Hitler was visiting the city to create the Axis with Mussolini. Many Germans and Austrians were held hostage and put in...


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