By Bill Siebenschuh

I have many fond memories of P.K. Saha: his wonderful sense of humor, his amazing memory and command of just about everything he ever read or saw, the way the students loved him. But when I learned that he had passed, the first thing I thought of was something that happened in my first year in the department. As the new Director of Composition, it was my responsibility to teach English 500. To do so I felt obliged to include some Chomsky in the syllabus. The problem was, I didn’t understand a word Chomsky wrote.  One day as I was discussing the course with a senior graduate student who had already taken it, I asked him what Chomsky they had read, and he said, “P.K.’s translation.” I didn’t know P.K. very well at that time, but I went to see him and asked him about it. He just laughed and said, “Oh, yes. I did that a couple of years ago for my students in the linguistics course. Chomsky can be unintelligible. I just summarized his basic ideas. Do you want to borrow it?” I used his translation, which was clear as a bell, and by the end of the course the students understood Chomsky and finally so did I. In my early years in the department, P.K. became a sort of guru-at-the-ready. An international student would come to the Writing Center in Pardee Hall and ask, “In English, why does one say ‘the big white house’ and not ‘the white big house?’” I would look at my watch, say, “Oh, look at the time! Come back on Wednesday, and I’ll explain.” And then I would get on the phone to P.K. He was always ready to help.

He had an amazing career which began in Calcutta, ended in Cleveland, and included what seems like a little bit of everything. He was a first-rate linguist, an award-winning teacher of both graduate and undergraduate students, a wonderful colleague, a formidable poker player, a genial host, a gourmet cook, and, late in his life, a forensic linguist. But my first memory of him was about his kindness to the new kid in the department.  As another of my gurus, Samuel Johnson, once said, “The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good.” By that measure, P.K. was about as good as it gets.

P.K. Saha’s obituary from

More memories of P.K.

So much to say about P.K.- my teacher, mentor, go-to-man when I was creating the ESL composition program – language questions as I wrote about poetry, graded ESL papers – the list could go on and on.

But one anecdote popped into my mind immediately. Before I had a chance to write it, though, Bill Siebenschuh sent me the letter he had written – and I had to laugh at the similarity of our experiences.  So here’s my version of the Clarifying Professor: P.K.’s linguistics class was NOT for sissies. In fact before the drop/add period was over all but graduate students in English had dropped the course! Our book for the next class meeting was very thin – no problem I thought.  But then looking at the cover, I realized it was the first time I had to read a book whose title I didn’t understand: Generative Phonology. What is that? Then I opened it. In my field we do words; this book was all formulae. After a while I just gave up, only to find that the rest of the class had had the same problem. Next morning in class, P.K. stood in front of us, at the backboard, and in 10 minutes it was all clear and comprehensible. WHAT a teacher, I thought – what a teacher!

I had a lot of questions about how to deal with international student papers – those ready to be judged for the required “C Competence” – rhetorically ready, very advanced in their English but not absolutely perfect. Where to draw the line? Which were the criteria that mattered, which could be considered minor. These were decisions of policy. His advice worked.

As I was writing my dissertation on the poetry of Robert Frost, P.K. was a valuable member of my committee. Yes, I consulted with him, but most valuable were the lessons I had learned from him in analyzing language. I analyzed sound by transcribing the poem phonetically, analyzed patterns of stress; even theories of metaphor and notions of deep structure found their way into my thinking  – the tools he gave us in linguistics. When my book came out, those analyses made the biggest splash.

All this not even to mention what a fine human being P.K. was. Always encouraging, gentle, kind, good-natured. The days before linguistics exams his office was an all-day open house where he patiently explained and reviewed every question we brought to his door.

He was an exceptional, deservedly beloved member of our faculty.  His passing is a loss to us all.

–Judy Oster

I knew P.K. first through our mutual friend, Lou Milic, and through his short pieces on language and etymology that we published in The Gamut. And when I started teaching at Case, it was so nice to see a known and friendly face on a new campus. He was very kind to me especially in that first year — always stopping in the hall to ask how my classes were going.

–Mary Grimm

It occurs to me that not that many knew P.K. as a colleague or remember how important he was in the department. In the 1970s and a while afterwards he was a campus-wide legend as a teacher. First one ever and still one of a handful to win both the Wittke and Diekhoff awards for teaching. A rarity in the profession which spurns hiring its own, he actually got his doctorate from the place–us–where he spent most of his career, though starting out at Case Tech before the merger and only coming officially into the CWRU English Department when a rump unit of Case’s humanities and social science faculty were obliged to join traditional departments. Yet even well before that, his linguistics course was a requirement in our grad program.

In the hallways he was known for stopping one to tell a joke–sometimes, I admit, the same one he had told you last week–but as Mary also rightly recalls he had a kind word for everyone and was especially a kind of social glue among the graduate students. They had all taken ENGL 401, Introduction to Linguistics in English, where he taught them to worship at the throne of Chomsky.

Last and far from least, he was a serious and vigorous and sneaky poker player, even at the low stakes of us low paid profs. (CSU’s department had a higher stakes game, where he earned his real money.) This was a regular event, from which Bill S. and I are the only surviving department participants, joined by our wives and on occasion by P.K.‘s daughter, who was a CWRU English major. Poker and linguistic virtuosity go together, for P.K. coined many a local term or perfected others.

–Gary Stonum