Donald Lance remembered

Gerald Cohen gcohen at UMR.EDU
Fri Oct 25 01:11:38 UTC 2002

     I was very saddened to receive the news about Don. I met him a
year or so after my 1968 arrival in Missouri to teach at the
University of Missouri-
Rolla.  Don taught at the University of Missouri-Columbia, and we met
at an annual meeting of the Missouri Academy of Sciences.

     Don was especially interested in American dialects, and I have
always looked with awe at dialecticians who can tell from speaking
with people  what part of the country they're from.  I remember two
incidents of Don's ability in this regard.

1) Some twenty-five years ago I attended the linguistics section of
the Missouri Academy of Science's annual meeting. There were only
five or so of us at the linguistics section, all of us presenting
papers, and Don's was the last.  He began his paper by saying with
his gentle and yet knowing grin that he could tell from the accents
of all the preceding speakers what part of the country they're from.

     Before he could continue I protested impulsively: "I don't talk
with an accent!"

     The reaction was instantaneous and unanimous in the room, almost
as if it was scripted: "Like heck you don't!" (I really don't talk
with an accent, but people in the Midwest who hear me seem to agree
that I speak with a heavy New York accent.)

2) About twenty years ago a woman turned up in Columbia, Missouri
with amnesia. She had no idea who she was or where she came from and
assumed the name Sarah Gray, with "Gray" supposed to designate what
she thought of her drab life.
She was brought to the attention of the police, who wanted to locate
her family but without putting out a national call for help; the call
should be localized.

    The police were in a quandary about how to locate Ms. Gray's
family, when someone drew Don Lance to their attention. Even a person
with amnesia doesn't change their speech patterns, and Don was called
in to speak with Ms. Gray to determine where she was from. He spoke
with her a while and asked her a series of questions (e.g., "greasy"
vs. "greazy") and afterwards pretty much zeroed in on where she came
from;  I think it was a section of the Pittsburgh or Philadelphia
area; I just don't remember.

    Don made a recording of Ms. Gray's speech and sent it to a dialectician
in whatever city he suspected she came from, and he soon received a
confirming second opinion. Don gave the information to the police,
who put out an announcement to the public in Ms. Gray's home base,
and sure enough,
at least one or two members of her family turned up.

     The story was remarkable enough to make one of the tabloids; I
believe it was the Star.  The story, sad to say, didn't have a happy
ending; Ms. Gray was a deeply troubled woman and soon afterwards left
Columbia. I don't think Don ever received word about her afterwards.

     I later asked Don to write an article explaining just how he
figured out where Sarah Gray came from; what linguistic clues
revealed her origin?
The Star article hadn't gone into these details, and I offered to
publish Don's account in my Comments on Etymology. He politely
declined, however, explaining that Sarah Gray had had great hardship
in her life, and he didn't want to benefit from that hardship in any

     It was a profoundly ethical decision on Don's part and emblematic
of his gentle and kindly nature. I of course accepted the decision,
although deep down I really would have liked to have Don's account of
how he did it.

Gerald Cohen

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