R.I.P. Ellen Prince

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A note from the Penn Linguistics Department, written by Gillian Sankoff and Tony Kroch:

It is with great sadness that we announce the death of our colleague Ellen F. Prince. Ellen died peacefully at home in Philadelphia on Sunday, October 24, after a long battle with cancer.

After earning her doctorate in linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania in 1974, Ellen joined the faculty of the Penn Linguistics Department in the same year. She taught here until her retirement in 2005 and served as chair of our department from 1993 to 1997. Ellen was also active in the affairs of the Linguistic Society of America, serving on the executive committee and in many other capacities. She was noted for her interdisciplinary perspective and held a secondary appointment in Penn's Computer and Information Sciences Department. Among her many honors were the Presidency of the Linguistic Society of America in 2008 and election as a fellow of the AAAS in 2009.

A pioneer in linguistic pragmatics, Ellen worked on her own and with many colleagues and students on various aspects of the subject. Several of her incisive and tightly argued papers became classics in the field. She is perhaps best known for her typology of information statuses in discourse, based on the study of naturally-occurring data; but she also devoted major efforts to the study of the pragmatic functions of syntactic constructions, including the various species of cleft and left-periphery constructions, including topicalization and left-dislocation. She had a particular interest in Yiddish and used her knowledge of that language to do ground-breaking work on the cross-linguistic comparison of the pragmatic functions of syntactic constructions. In later years, she continued her work on the referential status of noun phrases in the framework of centering theory, as developed by colleagues Aravind Joshi, Scott Weinstein and Barbara Grosz.

Ellen was an inspirational and caring teacher, imparting high intellectual standards while at the same time providing solid support and mentoring to her many students. We missed her acutely when she retired from our department; she will be even more sorely missed now and for years to come.

Friends, colleagues and students who would like to remember Ellen Prince by making a charitable donation are asked to donate to the American Lung Association.


  1. Z. D. Smith said,

    October 27, 2010 @ 6:58 pm

    Whether on the Yiddish mailing list, Mendele, of which she was one of the true backbones, or in her own writing, Ellen Prince consistently provided the most optimal combination of erudition and communicative humanity on nearly every topic. I was excited whenever I saw her byline, because I knew that if she was addressing a novice, or someone with no linguistic background, that she would provide them with an answer that was not only right, but understandable; and if she was writing in a higher, scientific mode, that I would learn something myself in the most enjoyable way. I'm very sad that I won't be seeing her byline again.

  2. Lance said,

    October 27, 2010 @ 7:36 pm

    To my sorrow, I never managed to meet Ellen, though I sat in her office for a year and a half under her signed photo of Woody Allen. But I don't need to have met her to feel a profound sense of loss at her passing, and I can only hope that I did her office (and Woody, my adopted patron saint) justice.

  3. Marisa said,

    October 27, 2010 @ 10:08 pm

    So sorry to hear it!

  4. Faith said,

    October 27, 2010 @ 11:03 pm

    כבֿוד איר אַנדענק

  5. bjr said,

    October 27, 2010 @ 11:29 pm

    I'm saddened to hear of Prof. Prince's passing. She taught the Intro to Linguistics course I took c. 1980.

  6. Ellen F. Prince – Society for Linguistic Anthropology said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 10:02 pm

    […] Philadelphia on Sunday 24 October. The Linguistics Society of America (via an email to members) and Language Log have reproduced an announcement from the University of […]

  7. Martin van den Berg said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 12:10 am

    She was a wonderful person, whose company I always enjoyed. The first time we met, during a workshop the 1991 LSA Summer Institute, we immediately bonded over the fact that both our fathers had been diamond cutters. Her work on narrative was an inspiration to me. I hadn't been in contact with her in the last couple of years, and I am really sorry that now I will not be able to see her again.

  8. J. Goard said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 11:11 pm

    A true giant. Her work has been enormously influential on my views about nominal reference. Although I'm just getting started, and (as far as I know) have never been in her vicinity, I deeply regret missing the chance to meet her.

    My condolences to those who knew her personally.

  9. Kieran Snyder said,

    October 31, 2010 @ 2:50 pm

    I was so sorry to learn this. Ellen influenced my thinking profoundly – I'll remember her as a linguist, sure, but also as a rose cultivator, a car mechanics expert, a Brooklyn storyteller, a friend, and a seriously tough cookie with a secret soft side. I'll miss her greatly.

  10. Chengzhou Shi said,

    March 20, 2012 @ 9:59 pm

    I am extremely sorry to hear of Professor Ellen Prince's passing. I never met her but I will remember her forever. Her work on information statuses in discourse has been so influential on my research into information packaging in Chinese.

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