Ilse Lehiste again

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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.


  1. Arnold Zwicky said,

    December 28, 2010 @ 12:10 pm

    Nice to bring out Ilse's joy in her work and her ceaseless intellectual curiosity. Also a signal fact about her as a public figure in linguistics: she looked for people whose cast of mind and ideas she admired and then worked hard, often behind the scenes, to use her influence to advance their careers; it was a kind of moral purpose for her. Sally and I were both beneficiaries of her aid and encouragement.

  2. Reiner Wilhelms-Tricarico said,

    January 4, 2011 @ 10:20 am

    Thanks to who ever posted the video on youtube of Ilse playing the piano with so much fervour and fun. She was one of a kind and I am glad to have known her during my time at OSU. Such a friendly and funny person she was! The best thing I remember was how much time and effort she spent to help me write a small grant application. At the time I still had a quite lousy command of English; so she took it on to turn my written diatribes into real English. First I got the manuscript back with about as many red ink marks as there were words. After rewriting I got fewer remarks the second time, but still about one red mark per line. The grant proposal was eventually funded on first submission – thanks to her, but the true benefit for me was her amazing skill to detect and understand the origin of all my pitfalls and the 'false friends' I fell for while trying to write and speak English, and then explaining them to me with great generality. Thank you Ilse, you fixed my head! (Sorry, I tried my best, but I bet you would still find here plenty of abuses of English.)

    Reiner Wilhelms-Tricarico,

  3. Shari Speer said,

    February 1, 2011 @ 3:54 pm

    I did not know Ilse well personally, having arrived at OSU after she had become emeritus. However, her pioneering work on prosody in language comprehension inspired my initial interest in the area – one that has sustained my academic career to this day. My colleagues Paul Warren, Amy Schafer and I dedicated our most recent publication on prosody (to appear in the new journal, Laboratory Phonology) to Ilse's memory. It is a paper that took years to publish, as some good ones do, and Ilse was fond of the work, intermittently asking me after its progress. We could not have produced it without 'standing on her shoulders.'

    Shari Speer (and for Amy Schafer and Paul Warren)

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