Good Ears

In her illuminating profile of language and culture expert Benedicte Grima Santry Gr’89, frequent Gazette contributor Beebe Bahrami Gr’95 quotes an admiring colleague on Grima Santry’s remarkable ear for Pashto, a major language of Afghanistan and parts of neighboring Pakistan.

A similar special quality of engagement, a near-perfect match between their interests and abilities and their chosen work, seems to me to unite the subjects of this issue’s feature articles, who otherwise operate in wildly disparate environments—from war-torn Afghanistan to the rough-and-tumble of Hollywood and Broadway.

In one way, at least, those worlds are closer than they might appear—Grima Santry’s experiences in 12 years of living with and studying the patriarchal and tradition-bound Pashtuns are the stuff of which classic adventure films are made, with the added modern twist that she traveled as a woman alone in these deeply conservative societies.

After growing up in a bilingual family (English and French), as a teenager in 1976 she accompanied her aunt on a tour through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan and fell in love with the region and its languages. She would return several times between the late 1970s and early 1990s. She had her share of harrowing moments, witnessing the collapse of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the rise of the Taliban, while working for aid agencies and doing fieldwork.

Events have made the languages and cultures of this once-obscure-to-Westerners corner of the world centrally important to U.S. foreign policy. Even so, Penn’s program in Pashto studies, where Grima Santry was invited back to teach following 9/11, is one of only three in the country.

From all reports, Bill Labov has a pretty good ear, too. Credited with founding the discipline of sociolinguistics—and training half the current practitioners in the field—in his more than 30 years at Penn, Labov and two alumni coauthors recently published the North American Atlas of American English, a book and CD-ROM that “take their users on a linguistic journey across the continent,” writes associate editor Susan Frith in her profile of Labov, “Continental Drift.” Arising from the multitude of individual insights about the way we talk now included in the work is the general one that—despite the omnipresence of media in our lives—speech is becoming not less regionally distinctive, but more so. And, related to the first, that: “[D]eep divisions in American life are still there, reflected in linguistic patterns,” says Labov.

Senior editor Samuel Hughes’ cover story, “Passion Plays,” on producer Marc Platt C’79 also reveals someone with a true passion for his chosen field and an extraordinary capacity for being attuned to what makes for powerful—and popular—film, television, and theater.

Before shepherding the Broadway smash-hit Wicked to the stage (no easy task, as Sam’s story makes clear) Platt had been responsible for a slew of Hollywood’s most important and/or culturally resonant films—Dances With Wolves, Philadelphia, and The Silence of the Lambs among them—as well as smart crowd-pleasers like the Legally Blonde films, all while staying married to his college sweetheart and raising their five children (including, so far, one Penn alum and one current student).

Sam also offers a tribute to former Philadelphia magazine editor Alan Halpern C’47, who died late last year. Though he doesn’t usually get the credit for it, Halpern largely invented the city magazine in his 30 years as editor of Phillymag from the 1960s until 1980.

I never knew or worked for Alan Halpern, but I discovered that I have a reason to be grateful to him. As I learned from Sam’s piece, it was Halpern who steered Sam to the Gazette, where he has been a mainstay ever since.

—John Prendergast C’80


©2006 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 05/05/06

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