Romance Languages and Literatures

Some Reflections: Joan Coromines at the University of Chicago

Peter F. Dembowski
(Catalan Studies Program Inauguration and Symposium, Chicago, 7-8 April 2006)

Joan Coromines came to the University of Chicago in 1946 as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures. The department to which this 39-years old scholar was appointed had a truly distinguished philological tradition. Between 1932 until 1940 Walther von Wartburg (1888-1971), professor at the University of Leipzig and later of Basel, a most distinguished Romance lexicographer, was a regular visiting professor in the department where he spent at least one quarter each year. For many years the Head of the department was a well-known German-trained American, a specialist in Old French language and literature, William A. Nitze (1876-1957). (Incidentally, William Nitze was a father of an outstanding American diplomat Paul H. Nitze.) William Nitze retired form the headship of the department in 1941, but for several years he continued to be its important and influential member.

There is no doubt in my mind that it was Nitze who brought the attention of the department to the candidacy of Joan Coromines. This candidacy was certainly acted upon by Nitze’s successor Clarence Permanter (1888-1982). Parmenter was an outstanding phonetician  who, in fact, brought to the North American continent the teaching of modern phonetics, as developed in the famous Institut de Phonétique of Paris. His specialty was French and Spanish phonetics and its use in language teaching.  Parmenter was Professor of French, but he also taught some advance Spanish literature courses. I am convinced that Coromines had thus found a friendly administrative reception, not only because of the personality of its chairman, but also because the scientific atmosphere of the university community was fundamentally friendly to the type of scholarship that Coromines was practicing.

It must be remembered that in the mid-twentieth-century the University of Chicago, like most other American universities, was certainly quite receptive to the systematic historical and developmental language studies created in the nineteenth century largely by the German scholars. The only important exception were those universities in which very strong French fashions and preferences were manifest. A good example of these was Yale University, which introduced in the mid 1930’s strong French reaction against philology, pitting “French humanism” against “German science.”

Although very friendly to everything French, Coromines pointed out to me often that the best of the French philologists, certainly those under whom he studied, did not pay attention to this largely political quarrel and, of course, the Italian and Hispanic universities were hardly affected by the humanisme versus Wissenschaft dispute.

In 1951 Parmenter was replaced as chairman of the department by (Pierre) Robert Vigneron, Professor of French (1897-1975), who in turn was replaced by Bernard Weinberg (1908-1973), Professor of French and Italian in 1959. Coromines told me several times that he was glad that during his stay in Chicago the chairmen were French professors. But it has to be said that his relationships with all the members of the department were grosso modo good. This certainly demonstrates his good-natured acceptance and inborn politeness, for he always knew how to separate his strong stand for Catalan language and culture from the personal relationship with his Spanish colleagues. I simply noticed that he often spoke with them in English. If Parmenter and Weinberg were intellectually sympathetic to Coromines’s scholarly endeavor, Vigneron was probably not too sympathetic to philological research in general. He was a difficult character, profoundly influenced by his French ethnocentricity, strengthened further by his outstanding military service in World War I (he joined the army when he was 18 years old and participated, as a noncommissioned officer in the whole battle of Verdun). I have never heard any complaints from Coromines about Vigneron. I am sure that Vigneron’s “French” anti-philology was mollified not only by Coromines’s mildness of character and gentlemanliness, but certainly also by his excellent command of French. In fact he spoke to me exclusively in that language all the time of our acquaintance.

I believe that the friendly intellectual atmosphere of the University of Chicago was a reflection of the larger American academia. Coromines’s coming to America coincides in time with the founding of the journal Romance Philology by Yakov Malkiel (1914-1998) at the University of California, Berkeley. In its Vol. II, Coromines was listed as a member of the Editorial Board. Since I was privy to both Malkiel’s and Coromines’s views of this matter, I must share with you here details of their relationship for the sake of historical record. Coromines published a long two-part article in the journal, “Problemas del diccionario etimológico” (II, 1947-48, 23-38 and 79-104) which consisted of a discussion of a long series of doubtful and difficult Hispanic etymologies. He also published in Malkiels’s journal, a year later, two short notes of the same character.  But in vol. VIII (1954-55), Coromines was no longuer listed as a member of the Editorial Board. Malkiel was by then slightly critical of some of Coromines’s etymological approaches, but the real reasons for this apparent falling-out of those two great scholars were far more pedestrian. Coromines was taken aback by Malkiel’s attempts not only to improve his etymologies but also to correct his Spanish style. We all knew that Malkiel was doing it to many other authors, but this apparently was too much for the mild-mannered Coromines. His rancor towards Malkiel was not very deep for he was always very friendly and courteous to me, although he knew very well, from my dossier submitted to the University of Chicago, that I was a “Malkielista,” that is, a student of Malkiel.


Coromines’s strictly academic career in the University of Chicago was far from typical. He was initially appointed as Assistant Professor of Romance Philology, but without being subjected to the customary six-year waiting period, he was promoted in 1951 to Associate Professor with tenure, and only two years after that, in 1953, he was raised to full Professorship.

These facts are the best proof of the general appreciation and esteem in which the University held this illustrious Romance philologist.  The other proof of this appreciation was the fact that the Division of the Humanities, despite its particularly severe financial straits of the post-War period, provided some modest funds for Coromines’s assistants, to help him with, for example, the index to the Diccionario etimológico de la lengua castellana. More importantly, his teaching schedule was arranged in such a way that he could teach two quarters in Chicago and spend the other six months in Barcelona carrying out his research. If at first such arrangements were made ad hoc for each academic year, beginning in 1953 this arrangement became permanent until Coromines’s retirement.

From the very arrival of Coromines he resolved once for all the problem of his passport name (as he called it), Juan versus the Catalan Joan. He signed his documents “J. Coromines,” with a very legible “-es.” And from the beginning of his stay in this University he was using the name John. In this he foreshadowed the European present-day linguistic quandary in which English seems to be preferable as a common language to French or German.

I believe that Coromines became an American citizen soon after his arrival in Chicago. His citizenship served him in good stead when some-time in the late 1960’s he participated in a political demonstration in Barcelona and was arrested by the Franco police. Chicago newspapers carried the news prominently under headlines such as “U. of C. professor arrested in Spain.” After a few days Coromines was released from prison, in part because of the intervention of the American consul in Barcelona. He explained his adventure: “I was arrested for making a little speech in my native language.”

Coromines took early retirement in 1968 (at the age of 62) in order to devote himself solely to his work on the Diccionari etimològic i complementari de la llengua catalana and on other subsequent scholarly projects.  I remember very well that at the retirement ceremony and party organized by the department, Coromines spoke with real passion about his debt of gratitude to the University and the Division of the Humanities: “Without your real and generous assistance I would not have become the man that I am now.”  I am absolutely sure that his feeling of appreciation of the University was genuine.

In his 22 years Coromines taught many graduate courses in our department.  I say “graduate” because in the then organization of the University the undergraduate and graduate faulties were separate entities. While pursuing the old University catalogues I found that some of his courses were quite close to his research specialties: Spanish lexicography, Hispanic dialects (described as “the old and modern dialects of the Iberian Penisula; their historical, literary and linguistic developments”), Catalan.  Other courses given by Coromines were of less immediate pertinence to his own research, but I am probably wrong, as my friend Joseph Gulsoy will doubtless tell us, that everything that Coromines taught was pertinent to his research. Here is the list of those other courses: Gramática histórica, Old Spanish texts, La lengua española en América, Old Provençal, Old French, Middle French, El libro de buen amor: linguistic studies, History of Old French phonology and morphology.

This last group of courses was important in my own career, because, in the words Bernard Weinberg, the chairman under whom I was appointed, in 1965 in preparation for Coromines’s retirement, I was to teach Old French, Old Provençal and the Historical Grammar of Romance Language, and Daniel Cárdenas was to teach Hispanic linguistics (especially phonology). We see that Coromines’s teaching areas were distributed to two new professors.


Upon my arrival in Chicago, I spent many hours in Coromines’s company. Let me explain. Before building our new University Library (Regenstein) the book collections were housed in the Classics, Wieboldt and Harper buildings. Wieboldt housed the books on modern foreign languages.  The offices of the professors were right in the stacks. There were not many of those offices and often two professors shared the same office. Luckily for me I was lodged with Coromines in room 211.  I had a somewhat difficult time in persuading Coromines to make a little room for my books.  All the shelves were filled with the boxes for 4x6 cards. Countless boxes were filled with hand-written filing cards containing the whole Diccionario ... castellano. I always wanted to know whether this dictionary was printed directly from the filing cards or from typescript, but I did not dare to ask. The countless card boxes disappeared (I do not remember in what manner) right after departure of Coromines.

Coromines was always very friendly and kind to me. Both of us had the habit of working in the office and that gave us much occasion for friendly conversations.  I remember many of them. His favorite subject was a systematic comparison between the national feelings of the Catalan and Polish people. He really knew a lot about Polish history between 1700 and our era.  One difference that I liked to stress was the fact that the Polish national territory was divided between three occupations: Austrian, Prussian and Russian. After a while he agreed that only in the Austrian part of Poland was the situation similar to Catalonia of his day.

We talked a lot about the American politics of the day.  Like most people in Hyde Park he was a supporter of the Democratic Party, but his American political views were overshadowed by his deep, sincere and constant affection for his native land. He was very well informed as to what was happening there. He received many letters from his friends in the Old Country.

And, of course, we did talk about our work. He expressed an interest in my Old French critical edition ventures, and was quite well informed about the current discussions concerning editorial practices applied to old texts. He told me that he very much enjoyed his field work in Spain, especially on dialectology, toponymics and anthroponymics, which required visiting small places. He told me amusing stories about asking the local notables to introduce him to a young person in order to study his language. Very often he was told that so-and-so speaks most perfectly, because he has just returned from a two-year military service in Madrid.  Before leaving Chicago Coromines left me his old tent which he used in his peregrinations in Spain. I used the tent only once during the construction of my summer home in Québec. After the first night, the local cows, obviously attracted by the pleasant aroma of the old country fields and meadows, simply devoured most of it.

While writing some of my recollections of Joan Coromines, I remembered that he gave me his Breve diccionario etimológico de la lengua castellana. I reread the dedication: “A M. P. Dembowski avec la reconnaissance d’un collègue et ami. J. Coromines.” I too, shall always remember Joan Coromines as a colleague and friend, and I am grateful for this remembrance. And I consider my homage to Joan Coromines to be my own and humble Homage to Catalonia.