The Evening of Life   /   Fall 2018   /    Essays

From Memory to Innovation

The Vowel Revolution in the Making of the Modern Mind

Colin Wells

Early Greek alphabet; National Archaeological Museum, Athens, Greece; Marsyas/Wikimedia Commons.

In praise of the humble vowel.

On December 4, 1935, the Harvard Crimson carried a brief story under the headline “Parry, Greek and Latin Professor, Killed Yesterday.” The subject of the story, Milman Parry, was a thirty-three-year-old assistant professor of classics at Harvard. His death, the campus newspaper reported, “was the result of an accidental shooting.… Parry, visiting his mother-in-law in Los Angeles, was unpacking a suitcase in his hotel bedroom when a revolver mixed in with his clothing went off, mortally wounding him.” Such phrasing was commonly used at the time to mask suicide or, conceivably, an accident at the hands of a child or other family member. Parry’s death remains a blank.

As an undergraduate studying classics at UCLA in the mid-1980s, I grew familiar with Parry’s name. At Oxford after that, I attended the lectures of celebrated scholars like Jasper Griffin and Hugh Lloyd-Jones and heard his name there, too. Parry seemed fresh and radical to them, although he had died more than half a century earlier. They spoke of him the way Al Pacino or Dustin Hoffman might speak of James Dean. Indeed, a couple of decades after Parry’s death, the eminent British classicist H.T. Wade-Gery called him “the Darwin of Homeric scholarship.” Not bad, I suppose, for leaving the field so early. What, precisely, did Parry do that was so different?

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