Linguist and ‘Fresh Air’ commentator Geoffrey Nunberg to give Nov. 4 talk

Linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, perhaps best known as the language commentator for NPR’s “Fresh Air,” will speak at the Franke Institute for the Humanities on Friday, Nov. 4 at 3:30 p.m.

Nunberg’s lecture, “On Having a Word For It,” will explore the ways in which particular words can shape our view of the concepts they describe.

It’s no coincidence, Nunberg said, that the mid-1970s saw the rise of marketing terms like “yuppie,” “preppie” and “Middle America” to define social categories, or that the word “patriotism” was introduced in the mid-18th century. The use of these words “suggest a change in cultural attitudes,” he explained.

Nunberg has published numerous books about language and culture, including The Way We Talk Now (2001), Going Nucular (2004), Talking Right: How Conservatives Turned Liberalism into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show (2006) and most recently, The Years of Talking Dangerously (2009). His writing on language earned him the Language and the Public Interest award from the Linguistic Society of America in 2001.

Nunberg’s scholarly interests include semantics (the study of meaning), pragmatics (the study of language use in context), the structure of written language, language policy and information access.

“The central question that drives Geoff Nunberg's work in linguistics is, roughly, ‘where does meaning come from?’” said Chris Kennedy, UChicago’s chair of Linguistics.

“His work has helped us understand the way that meaning arises from the complex interaction between the purely formal properties of language, which are assumed to be more or less the same from speaker to speaker, and specific features of the context in which language is used, which can vary quite a bit from one speech situation to another,” Kennedy added.

Nunberg is an adjunct full professor at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley. He is currently at work on a book examining the links between vulgarity and incivility in public discourse.

Nunberg is also a UChicago parent—his daughter is a fourth-year studying English.