Joshua T. Katz, (Yale ’91), Professor of Classics and sometime Director, Program in Linguistics, Princeton University

Mondays, October 5 – November 16, 7:00 - 8:30 pm (on week of October 12 (Columbus Day), class will be held on Wednesday, October 14, no class week of November 2 due to Princeton U. fall break)

Location:  "The D&R Greenway," Johnson Education Center

1 Preservation Place, off of Rosedale Road, Princeton, NJ 08540 

Course Description:

What was Georges Perec thinking when he wrote — and what should we think when we read —his 1969 novel La Disparition (“The Disappearance”), which lacks the letter e? And what about the continued e-lessness of Gilbert Adair’s English Translation, A Void? All forms of linguistic expression involve constraints (this course description must be under 250 words, for example, and a Shakespearean sonnet must have 14 decasyllabic verses), but some of these are more difficult to manage, more remarkable, and just plain stranger than others, like writing hundreds of pages without even once using the letter that makes up about 14.7 percent of any normal French text and 12.7 percent of any normal English one.

The purpose of this course is to explore in a hands-on way the ludic side of language, in the first place the English language. We will read poems, stories, and one novel by acknowledged masters; we will play games together; we will discuss the formal features, aesthetic pleasures, and societal roles of various forms of wordplay, from the childish to the abstruse; and we will try to create some good examples of wordplay ourselves. In the end, we will ideally have arrived at a better understanding of how language works and how these workings can be bent in unusual ways to produce striking effects.


Joshua T. Katz is a linguist by training, a classicist by profession, and a comparative philologist at heart. The recipient of degrees in linguistics from Yale (B.A. 1991), Oxford (M.Phil. 1993), and Harvard (Ph.D. 1998), he had the good and curious fortune to be allowed to reinvent himself as a classicist at Princeton, where he has been teaching since 1998. Widely published in the languages, literatures, and cultures of the ancient world, from India to Ireland via Greece, Rome, and the Near East, he prefers in both his research and his teaching to prowl around topics rather than pursue one single line of inquiry: papers from just the last two years consider Aristotle’s knowledge of badgers, uncover acrostics in Vergil, discuss the sanity of scholars who spot anagrams in Vedic texts, reinterpret a curious passage about marrow in the Old Norse Prose Edda, reconstruct the prehistory of the Ancient Greek pluperfect, and introduce the idea of divine vowels in Greek, Sanskrit, and Hebrew. Katz has received many prestigious awards for his scholarship, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Visiting Fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford, but he is especially proud of his work as a teacher: he has won both of Princeton’s main teaching prizes and is the only member of the Princeton faculty profiled in the 2012 book The Best 300 Professors (Yale has two!). Among his regular classes are “Origins and Nature of English Vocabulary,” “Ancient Egypt and its Hieroglyphs,” “Introduction to Indo-European,” “Imagined Languages,” and the freshman seminar “Wordplay: A Wry Plod from Babel to Scrabble,” on which the Yale Alumni College course is based.