Ilse Lehiste

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News from Brian Joseph: our colleague and dear friend Ilse Lehiste, Professor Emeritus of Linguistics at Ohio State University, died on Christmas Day, of complications from pneumonia.

Ilse's accomplishments were enormous and formidable, in a wide range of areas of scholarship and research — instrumental phonetics, historical linguistics, prosody, poetics, Estonian studies, Serbo-Croatian studies, Germanic philology, for a start. (She was also a polyglot, picking up new languages throughout her life, building on the Estonian, German, and Russian of her young days.) She was duly showered with honors, including the presidency of the Linguistic Society of America.

A more formal death notice is in preparation for the LSA; I'll post it when it's finished. In the meantime, this is the link to her Ohio State homepage, which has a lot of information. (The Ohio State server is down at the moment, unfortunately.) Inexplicably, she has no Wikipedia page.

Now, a few very personal remarks.

Ilse recruited me from Illinois for Ohio State in 1969 and oversaw rapid tenure for me and promotion to full professor. She immediately became close friends with me, my wife (Ann Daingerfield Zwicky), and our daughter (Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky), and later my partner (Jacques Transue). Later, with Elizabeth Traugott at Stanford, she helped to engineer a visiting professorship for me at Stanford, so that I divided my time between the two universities from 1985 through 1998 (when I moved to Stanford full-time). Along the way, Ilse spent time with me and my family almost every week, with some regular events, like Christmas Eve at her house — having a celebratory dinner, exchanging gifts, reading the Christmas story in Latin, and singing carols in English and German. Wonderful times, mixing the social and the academic.

I wish I'd gotten her to assemble a collection of her self-deprecating Estonian jokes (jokes about Estonians, not jokes in Estonian, though I'm sure she could tell them in several languages).

For a charming glimpse of Ilse, here's a YouTube video of her playing the piano in Tartu, Estonia, in 2008.

(Sadly, Brian's news came right on the heels of my posting on my blog about some deaths of 2010.)


  1. Twitter Trackbacks for Ilse Lehiste #language [] on said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 2:18 pm

    […] Ilse Lehiste #language – view page – cached […]

  2. Bartek Plichta said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 4:16 pm

    Prof. ilse lehiste's publications sparked my interest in phonetics. Her early work on syllable duration, glides, formant transitions remains current today. Sadly, I never had a chance to meet her in person.

  3. Wolfgang U. Dressler said,

    December 28, 2010 @ 9:50 am

    Ilse was a great source of inspiration for me from the moment when she hired me ti Ohio State University in 1970. Later on it was a great pleasure for me that she followed my invitation to teach as a visiting professor for a semester at Vienna University as well as to participate in several of our Phonologietagungen.

  4. Oop said,

    December 29, 2010 @ 12:31 pm

    I remember her holding a lecture in Tartu sometime in the middle of 1990s. Since then, I have been retelling many people the story about her kid calling radio persistently something like 'hafthl' – a clear evidence that the supposed simpleness of children's language skills is bogus. It was good to recall when in a Sumerian seminar, a German professor started talking about 'Lallwörter', as "all babies use simple words". Naturally, he had no kids himself.

  5. Rick Wojcik said,

    December 29, 2010 @ 11:22 pm

    I just learned of her passing on Mike Geis's Facebook page. Ilse had a profound effect on all of us. My wife, Sue, and I met for the first time in her Estonian class at the Summer Institute at Ohio State in 1970. I share your regret about those Estonian jokes passing with her. Sue and I did actually get to hear them in Estonian, although she still had to explain them to us in English. She had such a great sense of humor, but you can see that in the clip of her playing the piano. It was always a pleasure to be around her, and she will definitely be missed.

  6. Jack Hoeksema said,

    December 30, 2010 @ 1:13 pm

    I can't say I heard any Estonian jokes, but once was the butt of Ilse's wit.
    Ilse was chair at OSU the year I was there as a visiting professor (1984-1985). I defended my dissertation during the Christmas break of 1984, and on returning to Columbus put a copy of the dissertation in her mailslot, with a note, signed: Dr Hoeksema. I received a thank-you note, signed Dr Dr Dr Dr Ilse Lehiste. Turned out, she had two PhDs as well as two honorary PhDs.

  7. Arnold Zwicky said,

    December 30, 2010 @ 10:38 pm

    The OSU department has set up a memorial site, here, regularly refreshed — and with an appeal to a memorial fund in her name.

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