A short story

by Alex Zepter

This is the story of a young German linguistic student who wrote her master thesis on Verb Second and Optimality Theory. When she was done, she thought to herself:

“Well, actually, I should travel to the U.S. and visit the University where all these famous linguists work who created and developed the theory of Optimality. My English is not the best one — but I can learn, and I really would like to get to know these people.”

Short story: She booked a flight and arrived at the East Coast in March 1998. To be honest: At that time, she didn’t know yet whether she liked to write her doctoral thesis or not. She was actually quite uncertain about her ‘career goals’. Her motives were much simpler: She was really curious to meet a group of people who obviously were SO intelligent, ingenious and creative that they could develop and strengthen a fundamental new theory on language. Indeed, this was exciting.

And she didn’t get disappointed: She had a blast. She got to know a lot of very smart and friendly people, she could participate in some linguistic classes, went to a lot of talks, even presented some of her master thesis in a colloquium — and, the best of all: she really talked to one of the two linguists who originally developed Optimality Theory — let us call him Professor X.

If at that time selfies were already invented, I bet she would have made one of herself in a conversation with Professor X … Yes, I know, this is a bit spooky. But please don’t laugh about this kind of ‘fan behavior’. You have to try to see it through her young eyes: He and his wife, likewise a famous linguist, who applied Optimality to syntax, were something like idols for her; and talking to him was indeed very inspiring, since his brain was so sharp and because he loved to discuss apparently unsolvable problems.

Then, the end of the trip approached. One evening, Professor X asked her to come to his office. That made her a bit nervous. Who knew? Maybe there existed some customs and conventions in the U.S. she didn’t know about and which she had violated?

But something else happened — something completely surprising, at least for her: Professor X offered her a Ph.D. fellowship!

“Well, it turns out that we have one last fellowship to assign; we thought about it and we think: You could make a good candidate. So, do you want to come here to get your Ph.D. in the U.S.? Everything will be fully financed, four years of Ph.D. program, even your entire tuition will be paid.”

These were, more or less, his words. She was literally speechless: such an offer, handed to her on a silver platter … obviously, she had to accept.

In the following night though, some doubts popped up and lurked in her mind: This offer was way too big — and she hadn’t even asked for it! Normally, people didn’t offer you something like this just like this. This was like winning the lottery — and she was not the kind of person who won the lottery. There must be another explanation.

She pondered … and pondered …


Yes, maybe Professor X was a bit crazy; and I mean, truly a bit mad, not a simple weirdo. Maybe, this was his kind of thing: inventing untrue stories once in a while, and later, he couldn’t remember them anymore.

Maybe, the next day, when she had to meet his wife, the wife would laugh about the whole incident telling her: “Ah, yes, that’s his thing. You know, ingenious people … they sometimes behave irrationally …”

Fortunately for her, Professor X was not crazy.

The offer turned out to be a real offer: The young woman came back in fall and started the program. She then lived five years in the U.S., had a wonderful and instructive time and went home with a Ph.D. in her pocket. Happy End.

Believe it or not, this is a true story (maybe except the point that the young woman was not that young anymore …). You might like to fill in the gaps by yourself (who is Professor X etc.).

From the bottom of my heart, I wish you, Alan, all the best!

And I hope to see you again sometime and take up the conversation on one or the other apparently unsolvable linguistic problem …


Suggested citation:
Zepter, Alexandra. 2015. A short story. In Short ’schrift for Alan Prince, compiled by Eric Baković. https://princeshortschrift.wordpress.com/stories/zepter/.

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