- Victoria A. Fromkin
Vicki Fromkin was the mother of all linguists. She nurtured her chosen field zealously, helping its practitioners from their first glimpse of what it could offer to the advanced levels of her own research on language and the brain. She was known to literally millions of people through her book An introduction to language, which has sold over three-quarters of a million copies and has been translated into many languages, including Portuguese, Japanese, Swedish, Chinese, Korean, Hindi, Dutch, and even into Australian English. Probably no other linguistics book has had such success. The book arose from a course, Linguistics 1, that she developed and taught for many years. (Robert Rodman, her first co-author, was her teaching assistant in one of the earlier versions of this course. He is currently a professor of computer science at North Carolina State University.) Whenever Vicki taught Linguistics 1 it bulged over the class limit of four hundred students. Her friendly style and quick wit kept students enthralled.
It is interesting to consider why An introduction to language (1st edn., 1974; 7th edn., Fromkin et al. 2002) is such a successful book. It is not because it lacks competitors. Many people have tried unsuccessfully to replace it. Nor does the glib answer—it’s because of the cartoons—explain it. Instructors, not fun-seeking students, choose books for a given course. Instructors are swayed by content and good explanations, not by dashes of humor. The real strength of the book lies in its clarity and the wide range of topics that are covered, from careful phonological discussion to insightful comments on language and the brain. No doubt the cartoons are valuable, showing how studying language can be fun. The same is true for the quotations from authors such as Lewis Carroll, Jonathan Swift, and George Bernard Shaw, which link the study of language to a wider world. These lighthearted quotations are counterbalanced by serious citations from people such as Chomsky and Darwin, which lend the weight of authority. As a result, An introduction to language is a wonderful blend of amusement and knowledge. Many of today’s linguists had their interest in the field piqued by an introductory course using this text.
Vicki was well aware that she lacked the knowledge to write by herself a successor to An introduction to language. But, with her constant desire to help train better linguists, she very much wanted to provide upper division and beginning graduate classes with a more substantial book. Her zeal for the field led her to organize ‘the gang of 12’, herself and eleven other UCLA linguists, to write a book that she edited and rewrote with a passion. She was determined to produce an advanced linguistics text that treated the complex issues of linguistics in a straightforward, easy to understand manner. She put a great deal of effort into getting a unified text, bullying and cajoling her co-authors in a way that some of them found heavy-handed. The result, Linguistics: An introduction to linguistic theory, makes the latest developments in theoretical linguistics available to those with a deeper interest in the field. It is difficult for an advanced level book to be seen as capturing all aspects of the current theory, but insofar as this book achieves this end, Vicki achieved her goal of taking her field one step further.
She also advanced the field in her own, specialized, research. She began as a phonetician, developing new techniques of electromyography for a dissertation on the movements [End Page 768] of the lips in speech (Fromkin 1965). Her measurements of the lip gestures in American English are still cited. These studies of muscles in action led her to become interested in the control mechanisms underlying speech. Realizing that a superb window into the mind was available through the study of speech errors, she began her extensive collection of slips of the tongue, observing the kinds of mistakes that occur in the control of speech (see Fromkin 1980). Her dedication to this work was sometimes rather disconcerting. You could be talking to her about anything, and in the middle of the conversation she would whip out...