In observance of Women’s History Month, we are pleased to publish this brief essay about the many scholarly contributions of Adelaide Hahn, the first woman elected President of the LSA and a founding member of the Society. This is the second such feature in our new series, “This (time) in Linguistics History,” to be published on a periodic basis via the LSA website. We invite LSA members to submit their ideas and contributions for future history features. The new feature will be coordinated by LSA Archivist Brian Joseph, in consultation with the LSA Secretariat. The trigger event for this periodic feature could be an important day, week, month or year in the history of the LSA and/or the field of Linguistics. We are happy to publish as many features as often as LSA members are willing to contribute. Please submit your ideas via e-mail to Brian Joseph or Alyson Reed.

Archives and Special Collections
of Hunter College, CUNY

E. Adelaide Hahn was a classicist, a philologist, and a linguist, a lifelong resident of New York City, where she was born in 1893.  Her mother, Eleonore Funk Hahn, was a graduate of Hunter College and taught her only child at home until age thirteen.  Adelaide Hahn attended the high school run by Hunter College before entering the College from which she graduated in 1915 with majors in Latin and Greek.  Two years later she earned a master of arts from Columbia University and returned to Hunter as a teacher of French.  In 1921 she received a regular faculty appointment in Latin and Greek, and in 1929 she was awarded the Ph.D. in Latin by Columbia.  Hahn remained at Hunter for her entire career, chairing her department for a quarter century.

Although her early publications dealt primarily with Latin literature, especially poetry, Hahn had been introduced to historical linguistics during her M.A. studies.  In 1915-16, she took a course in the comparative grammar of Greek and Latin, taught by Edward Howard Sturtevant (1875-1952), one of the three men who in late 1924 sent out a call for the establishment of the Linguistic Society of America.  When the Society held its first meeting in New York in December of that year, Hahn was present and participated in the discussion of a paper given by Hermann Collitz (1855-1935), the first LSA president.  From that time until her death in 1967, she rarely missed a meeting of the Society, always participated in the discussions, and − starting with the third annual meeting − gave a paper at every meeting she attended, annual meetings as well as  summer meetings, once those began in 1938.  In all, she presented 65 papers at LSA meetings, in addition to scores of others at the American Philological Association (APA), the American Oriental Society (AOS), and the Classical Association of the Atlantic States (CAAS).  She had a philologist’s meticulous attention to detail, and she did not hesitate to speak out if another presenter made errors of fact in citing Latin or Greek.  In 1931, she added Hittite to her repertoire after studying with Sturtevant at a summer Linguistic Institute.  Most of her LSA papers from that time forward concerned Hittite, especially Hittite syntax, and many of these were published in Language.  Her continuing studies of Latin and Greek tended to appear in Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association.

Adelaide Hahn was elected president of the Linguistic Society of America for the year 1946.  She was the first woman so chosen and the only woman to hold that post until the mid 1960s.  Hahn was  proud of her election.  She was well aware that men dominated the field and she made a point to note in her faculty file at Hunter College whenever she gained recognition.  Following her selection as the LSA’s Collitz Professor in 1951, she wrote that she was ‘the fourth person and the first woman to occupy this chair.’

Hahn was a careful, thorough, and very impressive scholar who possessed an enormous store of linguistic facts and a detailed knowledge of earlier scholarship.  Her work was always extensively documented; it was not uncommon for an article of a dozen pages to contain fifty or more footnotes.  She was interested in syntax and in semantics, neither of which received much attention from her contemporaries.  And her research dealt with historical change in language, particularly with attempts to determine the meanings of forms that preceded attested linguistic data in the Indo-European languages.  As the decades passed, this, too, was of little interest to many of her peers.  Her 1953 monograph Subjunctive and Optative: Their Origin as Futures was published by the APA.  It received a negative review in Language, which greatly distressed her, and after that, she rarely wrote for the LSA journal.  But she remained a presence at meetings.  And especially for women who came into linguistics in the 1950s and 1960s, E. Adelaide Hahn was a symbol of achievement in our field.  When she died in 1967, there was an obituary in Language, an honor granted only to the Society’s most illustrious members.  She was also a highly respected figure in classics.  Recognizing ‘one of America’s leading Classical scholars,’ the Classical Association of the Atlantic States established the E. Adelaide Hahn Rome/Athens Scholarship, still awarded annually.

-- Julia S. Falk, La Jolla, CA

Primary Source

Falk, Julia S. 1999.  Women, Language and Linguistics: Three American Stories from the First Half of the Twentieth Century, Part IV: E. Adelaide Hahn, 185-265.   London and New York: Routledge.

Other Works

  • DeGraff, Thelma B.  1967.  E. Adelaide Hahn, April 1, 1893 – July 8, 1967.  The Classical World, 61:2.41-42.
  • Falk, Julia S.  1995.  Portraits of Women Linguists: Louise Pound, Edith Claflin, Adelaide Hahn.  In History of Linguistics 1993, ed. by Kurt R. Jankowsky, 313-320.  Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
  • Lane, George S.  1967.  E. Adelaide Hahn.  Language 43:4.958-964.