by William Carrington
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
Abram Zucker was an American philologist known for his theoretical modeling of Latin grammar as it existed in the latter half of the Justinian Triumvirate. With historical linguist Sebastian Cox, he originated the Cox-Zucker hypothesis on the effect of the Visigoths on 5th-century written Latin. He was born on September 29, 1964 in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin.
Zucker’s father, James, was the proprietor of the Third Avenue Playhouse in Sturgeon Bay during the 1950s and 1960s. He was known for playing comic roles in Shakespearean dramas such as the Fool in King Lear. He was particularly well-known for portraying Falstaff as a Chemistry professor whose laboratory experiments with pitchblende were constantly bathing his students in radioactive dust in a version of Hamlet set at the Princeton University Institute for Advanced Study in the 1920s, with the role of Hamlet altered to resemble John von Neumann.
James Zucker died in 1972 from wounds suffered while trying to rescue a fellow trout fisherman from a sea lamprey attack at Beaver Island in Lake Michigan. Abram Zucker, then aged 8, and his mother Gladys (née Jones) then moved to the Upper Peninsula town of Ishpeming, Michigan where Gladys had grown up on a blueberry farm.
Zucker attended elementary, middle and high school in Ishpeming, skipping several grades and graduating at the age of 16 in 1980. He played on the Hiawatha High School curling team for two years, earning all-regional status as a senior, and also played sousaphone in the high school marching band.
Zucker started college at Michigan Tech University in Houghton, Michigan in the fall of 1979 and graduated in three years with a double major in Mathematics and Classical Languages. He wrote a senior thesis in Latin: Si quaeris peninsulam amoenam circumspice on the effect of the Petoskey stone on Roman thinking about the age of the Earth.
He then worked for two years as a deckhand on a Lake Superior whitefish boat operating out of Copper Harbor, during which time he lost his right pinkie finger in a rope accident. Zucker had been a prolific right-handed masturbator before that injury, but he was unable to convert to any left-handed technique.
Some observers cite this event and its sequelae as the cause of some of the odd behavior that Zucker displayed in later years (See Dickinson’s 2022 study in Journal of Personality on the role of late-onset underonanism in the development of male personality in college years.)
The injury to his hand renewed his interest in classical scholarship and, on the basis of strong letters from his professors at Michigan Tech, Zucker won a scholarship at Harvard’s Department of Classical Studies.
Zucker passed through his coursework during his first year and then completed his dissertation in only two more years under the tutelage of Thomas Havrilesky of Harvard and also, in an unusual interuniversity arrangement, with Noam Chomsky of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
His first published paper, co-written with Chomsky, was entitled “Statistical Analysis of the Syntactical Structure of Herculean Latin Hermeneutics” and was published in the initial number of Grammar Statistics (1988). The study used statistical methods to compare the writings of known Roman authors of the day to the style in contemporary writings of unknown authorship.
By modeling the degree of similarity and by using Kalman filter techniques to isolate the most informative stylistic tendencies of each author, Zucker and Chomsky were able to show with near certainty that Saint Augustine was the author of a previously unattributed story excerpt. It depicted the seduction of a Roman senator’s young son by a traveling wheat salesman. The article was very controversial upon publication, but later research using more sophisticated statistical techniques has tended to support the conclusions of the Chomsky-Zucker study.
Zucker then spent three years as a Harvard Fellow, a research position without any teaching responsibility, and then took a job as an Associate Professor of Philology at Rice University in Houston, Texas. He published several works in his first years at Rice that are now viewed as foundational texts in the literature on mathematical modeling of Latin.
These works include “Topological Models of Declension,” published in the Journal of Latin Grammar, and “Lisping and Stuttering in the Court of Emperor Claudius.” The latter study provided strong support for some of the views on classical pronunciation and grammar implicitly put forth in the Robert Graves novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God.
Zucker also founded at this time the Journal of Statistical Latin, initially published by the University of Texas Press. Based on these early achievements, Zucker was appointed the Daniel Pastorini chair in Philology in 1990 after only two years at Rice. He remains the youngest chaired professor in Rice history.
He married Kimila Johnson-Zucker, a graduate student in the Rice Marine Biology Department at the time, in 1991 after a brief engagement. Renowned Okinawan marine biologist Gideon Okamoto was instrumental in introducing the couple to each other.
Zucker and Okamato had become squash partners at Rice, Zucker having picked up the game in Boston. Okamato took Zucker on a tour of his laboratory facilities after one such match. In an account he gave years later in his unfinished autobiography (Latin Lover, 2009), Zucker described his first observation of Johnson:
I was walking through the lab and was trying to recover from the nauseating smell of a vat of lab chemicals that Gideon had showed me, almost ready to pass out and holding on to one of the lab counters, when I became aware of an incongruously beautiful smell that was coming from just behind me. Before I even looked, I was transported to the smell of Michigan berry. Blueberries, of course, but also wild raspberries and thimbleberries. And suddenly my nausea was gone.
I turned around and there was Kim, laboratory goggles pulled over her face and a protective smock on, hardly an image to make one smitten, but there it was. She ignored me then, but she made an impression on me. I decided later that she smelled more like apples, but I love them, too.
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Copyright © 2015 by William Carrington