Jay Jasanoff

Diebold Professor of Indo-European Linguistics and Philology
Department of Linguistics
Harvard University

About Me


I was born in New York, as was my father. English is my only native language. My father's parents immigrated to the US in the first decade of the twentieth century from the vicinity of Bialystok, now in Poland. Near Bialystok is a town called Jasionówka (in Yiddish, Yashinuvka), which I presume is the source of the name "Jasanoff" (now pronounced with J- as in Jerry).1 My mother (née Deutsch) was born in what was then Máramarossziget, Hungary, and is now Sighetu Marmatiei, Romania (Transylvania). She came to the US in 1923 and spoke native Yiddish, Hungarian (eventually lost), and English.

How I became a linguist

Unlike most Indo-Europeanists, I did not start out as a classicist or any other kind of "language person." I did, however, find language and languages interesting, and as an undergraduate at Harvard made a late and hesitant decision to major in Linguistics and Mathematics. This meant "mathematical linguistics," as it was called in the early sixties — a catch-all category that included (among other things) machine translation, glottochronology, and the new "generative" approach being taught down the river at MIT by Noam Chomsky. In the spring term of my senior year I cross-registered in Chomsky's famous three-hour class, where he was expounding what would soon be known as the "Aspects" model. I was of course blown away, as was everybody else in the course. But unlike most of the others, I had also been inspired earlier that year by a different teacher — Calvert Watkins, whose "Comparative Grammar of Greek and Latin" I had taken as a lark on the strength of my self-taught Greek and two years of high school Latin. In the fall of 1963 I went to Bonn, Germany, on a Fulbright Fellowship, theoretically to learn more about machine translation, but in fact to reflect on whether I wanted to go to MIT for a Ph.D. in linguistic theory (which in my case would probably have meant phonology) or to Harvard for a Ph.D. in historical linguistics. After immersing myself in Gothic and Sanskrit for a few months I decided for historical linguistics — not the choice most people would have made at the time, but certainly the right one for me.


I don't come from an academic family, though I have been told that my maternal grandfather, whom I never knew, was a "scholar" — no doubt a Talmudic scholar. I have been married to my wife, Sheila Sen Jasanoff, who came to the US from India in the fifties, since 1968. We were college classmates, although we didn't know each other as undergraduates. We met in 1963 at a foreign students' evening (Ausländerabend) in Bonn, where both of us had independently wound up after graduation. After getting a Ph.D. in linguistics from Harvard like me, Sheila went on to law school and became a pioneer in the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS). She is currently Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies at the Harvard Kennedy School. Our two children, Alan Jasanoff (b. 1970) and Maya Jasanoff (b. 1974) are academics too. Alan is a neuroscientist at MIT, with a primary appointment in the Department of Biological Engineering. Maya is a historian at Harvard. Four of the world's five living Jasanoffs are thus professors in Cambridge, Mass. The fifth, who lives in Cambridge too but is not (yet?) a professor, is Alan's daughter, our granddaughter Nina (b. 2005). Our daughter-in-law, Luba Katz, holds a Ph.D. in genetics and works as a science policy consultant.

Other academic people in my extended family are Sheila's brother, Shankar Sen, a professor of mathematics at Cornell, and Luba's father, Victor Kac, a professor of mathematics at MIT.

¹ The second -a- in "Jasanoff" is a non-etymological spelling of English [ə] and is confined to my immediate family; spellings like "Jassenoff," "Jasenof," etc. are more common. The underlying root is the Slavic word for "ash tree" (Late Common Slavic *jasenĭ, Russ. jasen´, Pol. jesion).

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