February 02, 2008

Obituary: Eloise Jelinek

Eloise Jelinek, professor emerita of Linguistics at the University of Arizona, died in Tucson, Arizona on December 21st, 2007, after a long illness.

She was born in Dallas, Texas on February 10, 1924. Her life-long passion for language began during her childhood in Texas where she became fluent in Spanish. Her passion for linguistics was nurtured at the University of Michigan where she completed both a BA and MA in Anthropology and Linguistics.

Because of health concerns for her son, Tom, she, and her husband, Arthur Jelinek, moved to Tucson in 1967. In the mid-70's she was able to continue graduate studies in linguistics at the newly formed Linguistics Department at the University of Arizona. She received her doctorate in 1981 under the direction of Adrian Akmajian.

Her dissertation title was "On defining Categories: AUX and Predicate in Egyptian Arabic." Her knowledge of Arabic (and also Hebrew) was acquired while doing fieldwork on Egyptian Arabic during her time at the University of Michigan.

Following her doctorate, she served on the faculty at The University of Arizona from 1981 to 1992. She taught and spoke extensively around the world, from Santa Cruz to Prague. She served on committees and organized workshops for the Linguistic Society of America, for the Society for the Study of Indigenous Languages of the Americas, and for the American Anthropological Association. She received research grants from the National Science Foundation, the Jacobs Fund, the Lindley Foundation, the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the American Philosophical, Charles University, and the University of Arizona. Following her official "retirement" in 1992, her activities seemingly only increased, as she organized several workshops, continued to work on national committees, co-edited three volumes of collected papers, and, of course, continued to publish her original research.

Eloise was all that a scientist who studies human language should be: endlessly fascinated by the complexities of language, constantly seeking to formulate the explanatory principles that under that complexity. From her dissertation onward, her research represented an optimal marriage between original ideas and original field data, an example to theoretical linguists everywhere. She was especially instrumental in demonstrating the importance of data from endangered and less-studied languages to generative linguistics, among them the Straits Salish languages Samish and Lummi, as well as Navajo, Choctaw, and Yaqui.

Her great insight into the human language faculty was founded on her remarkable ability to grasp the underlying structures of such typologically diverse languages. Her work advanced in fundamental ways the understanding of linguistic variation and its relationship to linguistic universals.

One striking thing about Eloise's research is that her later work was always an expansion and deepening of her earlier work. She originally was part of a research team consisting of Adrian Akmajian, Susan Steele, and Thomas Wasow. The focus of the research of this team was the category AUX and its role in the syntax of the world's languages. The AUX was shown to typically have as constituents subject (and often object) person marking, tense, aspect, and modality. Eloise's Pronominal Argument (PA) Hypothesis (Jelinek 1984) grew directly out of her research on the AUX category. She proposed that a major typological distinction among languages such that some languages obligatorily satisfy their argument positions with pronominals (Pronominal Argument Languages) and other languages satisfy their argument positions with nominal constructions (e.g., nouns) (Nominal Argument Languages). What is important is the set of syntactic consequences that she showed follow once a language is described as a PA language. Her proposal has been the foundation of theoretical treatments of nonconfigurational, 'head marking' languages in the literature since it first appeared.

Throughout her career she was most intrigued by phenomena at the syntax/semantics interface. Quantification in PA languages, the relationship of discourse structure to syntactic structure, and the thetic/categorical predication distinction were central foci of her theoretical work. Especially indicative of her creativity is her analysis of morphological reduplication in Salish as a type of quantification. A conference focussing on her work was held in Utrecht in 2001, and colleagues presented her with a volume of papers in her honor in 2004.

She was also all that a humane scientist should be, personally. She was deeply committed to the communities of speakers who shared their languages with her. She shared Ken Hale's vision of native-speaker linguists describing and analyzing their own languages, and worked extensively to recruit minority students to the linguistics program at Arizona, particularly speakers of endangered languages. She supervised Dr. Mary Willie's doctoral dissertation on Navajo, and also Dr. Fernando Escalante's doctoral dissertation, the first Ph.D. on the grammar of the Yaqui language written by a Yaqui speaker. She also collaborated with the Pascua Yaqui tribe to produce a grammar workbook, and provided training in grammatical analysis to future language teachers in several workshops organized in the late 1990s.

She communicated the excitement of linguistic analysis and the beauty of grammatical structure to all of those with whom she worked. Those of us lucky enough to have known her will always also remember her sense of humor and her infallible kindness. With her death we have lost a great linguist, a steadfast friend, and wonderful human being.

Heidi Harley and Dick Demers

A 2001 version of her CV can be viewed here.
To view her Arizona Daily Star obituary, and sign her memory/guest book, click here.

Posted by Heidi Harley at February 2, 2008 11:20 PM