Arnold's news yesterday about Ilse Lehiste's passing was a sad coda to Christmas. What a tremendous loss to the field of linguistics — Ilse's exuberant reactions to all things linguistic made her a joy to be around
It was from Ilse that I first heard of the three degrees of phonemic length in Estonian consonants and vowels, and about Halbdeutsch ("Half-German"), the German-Estonian mixture created by Estonians eager to achieve upward mobility during a period of German rule. It was only half-German because the German rulers didn't want Estonians to learn German, so that Estonian German-learners had little access to full German. The Germans, meanwhile, are said to have spoken to Estonians in a kind of Halbestnisch ("Half-Estonian"). But although Halbestnisch is entirely undocumented, as far as I know, Halbdeutsch was written down in poems and a few other forms before both half-languages died out well over a century ago.
Last year I was given (by Karl Pajusalu, one of her co-authors) what must have been one of Ilse's last books, the co-authored work Livonian Prosody (published in Helsinki by Suomalais-Ugrilainen Seura/Societe Finno-Ougrienne, 2008). Like all of Ilse's publications, it is full of interesting facts and cogent analysis.
I'm not a fan of the over-used term "role model", but it's hard for me to avoid it in Ilse's case. She was responsible for the first invitation I ever received to give a plenary address at a conference (I wondered at the time if she'd made inviting a total nonentity a condition of her own agreement to give a plenary address at that conference, but I wasn't about to look the gift horse in the mouth); and shortly after I received tenure at the University of Pittsburgh, Ilse told me that she'd written a letter for my tenure case — the sort of letter, she said, that she wished someone had written for her when she came up for tenure.
But my admiration for her wasn't based on the role she played in my career, important as that was to me personally: it was more her rapid flow of ideas and her never-failing excitement about newly discovered linguistic facts. She showed me, more than anything, how much fun an academic life could be. For that, and for everything else I learned from her about linguistics, about languages, and about how to manage a career, I will always be grateful.
She also gave me the ideal recipe for a happy academic retirement: years ago, not long before she retired, she told me that what she wanted to do in retirement was everything she'd been doing all along, only a bit less of it (so that the constant time pressure would be reduced). And that, I believe, is what she did. The YouTube link to Ilse at the piano that Arnold provided in his Language Log obituary yesterday shows the Ilse I knew, even though my direct experience was confined to her academic persona (I only knew about her musical persona at second hand): energetic, skillful, inspired — and clearly, having a lot of fun. I will miss her greatly.