Eric Pratt Hamp (11/16/1920 – 2/17/2019)

« previous post | next post »

This obituary is a guest post by Brian Joseph. See also "The very model for historical comparison", by Nancy Dray.

The linguistics world suffered a huge loss on February 17 when Eric Pratt Hamp, a giant on the American and global linguistic scene, passed away at the age of 98. Eric was one-of-a-kind, an amazing scholar and polymath, a specialist in historical linguistics and in the history of a number of individual languages, but a contributor to theoretical issues as well, especially in structural linguistics. He understood the ins and outs of language change, arguing for a balance between system-internal factors and system-external factors, i.e. language contact, as the source of innovations, and applied his knowledge judiciously and carefully, working out the details of both language-internal and contact-induced changes for numerous languages, perhaps most tellingly those of the Balkan peninsula.

He controlled in his mind a library’s worth of information on literally hundreds of languages.  These languages were mostly Indo-European languages, both ancient and modern, and they spanned all the known branches of the family. However, he also worked on a wide array of non-Indo-European languages, as a glance at his extensive bibliography of some 3500 items reveals; these include various indigenous languages of the Americas, such as Eskimo, Karok, Popoluca, Mayan, and Ojibwe, but also Mongolian, Ainu, Fijian, and Bantu, inter alia, so that he essentially covered the globe with his research.

Although he published extensively on Celtic and Baltic, as well as the “classic” Indo-European languages (especially Greek, Latin, Vedic), he is perhaps best known for his insightful and detailed studies of Albanian, and in particular its dialects and historical grammar, both on its own and as a result of contact with other languages in the Balkans.  Unable to enter Albania for many years during the Communist control of the country, he instead worked on the language through the dialects represented outside of Albania, especially in Greece and in Southern Italy.  He visited every Albanian-speaking village in the Balkans outside of Albania, and collected word lists from speakers there.  Doing this allowed him to draw on this extensive dialect material to illuminate the historical development of the language overall.

In the two weeks since he left us, there have been several factually based obituary notices that give particulars regarding his professional life and glimpses into his personal life; several of these can be found online, and I give the links to some of them here:

Given that these other readily available necrologies provide so much information on Eric’s life, and since it is difficult to write a piece like this without injecting the personal, I am setting aside all semblance of providing “just the facts”, and instead embellish this piece with some personal observations on Eric and his intellectual legacy, both in general and as far as my own development as a linguist is concerned.

More than practically anyone else I have interacted with over my nearly 50 years of doing linguistics, Eric was a prime influence in shaping me as a linguist. Although I was not a student of his in the technical sense, I had the good fortune to meet him at dozens of conferences over the years, starting in 1980, to share many meals and drinks with him, and to be both a guest in his home and a host to him in mine.  These encounters gave me repeated opportunities to talk with him, to ask him questions, to listen carefully to what he had to say, to probe for details of analyses he had in mind but had not published, and in essence to learn from him at his feet, so to speak.  Virtually everything I know about Albanian and its history comes from questioning Eric and listening carefully to his generally long but always rich and fascinating answers. He had a knack for starting at point A in an answer, taking an unexpected path or two — or three or four — but always coming back to a logical follow-up to A and thereby offering a solution that got us to point B, circuitously perhaps but definitely interestingly and ultimately to the point.  These excursus often contained nuggets that shed important light on other problems, so that the whole experience was rather like a seminar exploring Indo-European historical grammar, but a personal one, basically a one-on-one session with a brilliant mind.

It was my pleasure also to collaborate with Eric on two conference papers (Hamp and Joseph 2007, 2008) and to write two reports on his work (Maynard & Joseph 2000, Joseph 2015), and as an editor to help him bring to public light his view of the historical phonology of Albanian syllabics (Hamp 2015).

I heard the sad news about Eric when I was at a symposium in Copenhagen.  Colleagues there remembered his time as a visiting professor not long after Louis Hjelmslev’s death in 1965.  One even had a vivid memory — something I can totally believe — of watching Eric declaiming in Old Albanian!  After Copenhagen, I moved on to Kosovo where I was meeting with colleagues and giving a lecture, and Eric’s passing dominated the conversation as he was a good friend to many and to all an esteemed colleague, notable Albanologist, formidable contributor to Albanian linguistics, and champion of the Albanian language and Albanians more generally.

While in Kosovo, I was the guest of the Academy of Sciences and Arts of Kosovo (AShAK), a body which had made Eric a Foreign Member some years ago and which published a volume, Hamp 2007, with his writings on Albanian translated into Albanian. The linguists in Kosovo had fond memories of Eric’s several visits there, the first in 1972 when it was part of Yugoslavia and the last in 2006 when it had become an independent country.  As Eric was dedicated to the Albanians, their independence was for him a particularly important and meaningful turn of events.

I have to turn to some of the ways in which Eric enriched my own understanding of linguistics, and my hope is that these personal remembrances will serve as a reminder to all of aspects of his legacy to the field of linguistics at large.  An ardent Neogrammarian, Eric was of the opinion that Historical Linguistics was the queen of the historical sciences.  He said once (and this is a close paraphrase, so I treat it as a quote) that “Embracing Neogrammarian sound change holds us in historical linguistics to a higher degree of accountability than in any science”, where he was referring to the importance of accounting for every single exception to a proposed sound change, given the Neogrammarian doctrine of regularity of sound change.

In a similar vein, Eric’s Neogrammarianism explains his view of lexical diffusion.  Lexical diffusion is the proposal that sound changes spread slowly through the lexicon, affecting some lexical items before others, and it is thus a direct challenge to Neogrammarianism since it would mean that there are exceptions to a sound change at any given moment before it is fully generalized across all candidate forms in the lexicon.  It also means that there are lexical conditions on sound change, contrary to the Neogrammarian viewpoint that there can be only phonetic conditions.  Eric’s take on lexical diffusion was embodied in what he said to me once while we were talking at the University of Chicago during a conference in 1984, and this is a direct quote, “Lexical diffusion means you haven't done your homework”.  By this he meant that one has to take apparent cases of lexical diffusion as a challenge to the Neogrammarian view of sound change, and rather than resting on such an identification, it behooves us to go back and reexamine the facts and look for possible factors that we may have overlooked, much as Hock 1976 does in reassessing claims by Anttila 1972 of grammatical conditioning of sound change, also a direct challenge to Neogrammarian doctrine, and much as Karl Verner did in explaining certain exceptions to the first Germanic sound shift (also known as Grimm’s Law) by reference to the position of accent in pre-Germanic.

I consider this a truly immortal quote and though it is not in any of Eric’s writings, as far as I know, I made a point of referring to it, and thus memorializing it, in an appreciation I wrote of his contributions to historical linguistics in connection with the publication of his study of Albanian historical syllabics (Hamp 2015 – my introduction is Joseph 2015; see, relatedly, Friedman 2015).  I pass on this quote yearly to my own classes, always with attribution to Eric.  This very telling and insightful comment quite frankly changed my thinking altogether on subject of lexical diffusion altogether and led me to understand fully the nature of the challenge it poses to Neogrammarian thinking and what is at stake scientifically.

Speaking of Karl Verner, Eric was of the opinion that  “Verner’s Law should be taught in all high school science classes”, alongside such staples as Boyle’s Law (concerning pressure and mass of ideal gases).  That is, Eric felt that Verner’s Law shows a classic application of the scientific method:  Grimm’s Law sound shifts are the initial hypothesis (the initial experimental results, so to speak), and the exceptions to Grimm’s Law are the outliers requiring explanation.  Verner’s Law, stating that pre-Germanic voiceless fricatives become voiced when immediately preceded by an unaccented syllable (where the accentuation was that inherited from Proto-Indo-European, before an innovative shift of accent to the initial syllable of a word), was a further hypothesis (a second experiment, as it were) that explained the exceptions in a manner consistent with known principles (such as regularity of sound change).  I eagerly await the day when this wish of Eric’s comes true, as it will be a major advance for getting linguistics into secondary education.

Although my Ph.D. training on its own served up a heavy dose of Neogrammarianism, it was seeing it in action in Eric’s practice of etymology and historical analysis that helped to solidify my own understanding of historical linguistics.

Eric was a master etymologist, yet he was aware of how fragile the etymological enterprise was.  He referred to etymology as “brittle science” (Hamp 1993: 14), in that all it takes is one detail out of place to scotch an otherwise promising etymological hypothesis. In his etymological work, Eric sweated the details so as to be sure that everything fell properly into place.

One of my favorites is his etymology of the name of the capital and largest city in the Republic of Kosovo, Prishtina.  Eric saw in the name Prishtina two Indo-European elements, first a derivative *pṛ-tu- of the Indo-European root *per- ‘through, pass, cross’, cognate with Latin portus ‘port’ and English ford, and second, a form *stein-, cognate with English stone; thus Prishtina, which once had two rivers flowing through it, though they are now covered over, was the place where one could ford the waters over stony terrain, quite literally, an Albanian stan-ford.

Eric was renowned for brief but pithy articles, sometimes as short as a half a page (occasionally even less) that were typically well worked out but with elements that always fit into a system. He had his own vision of what Proto-Indo-European looked like and how it was structured, for instance seeing evidence in Albanian for a fourth laryngeal (see Hamp 1965) and having his own take on root enlargements (they must have had a function and were not merely mechanical additions to roots, so that it is up to us to always look for what that function must have been), to mention just a couple of his ideas about Proto-Indo-European.

I learned so much from him and had I had more opportunities, I would have learned more.  He was a true scholar and I will miss him deeply, though I will always cherish the times I spent with him.  He will live on in his amazing record of scholarship and in the impact he had on literally thousands of lives through his research and through his tireless efforts to understand the phenomenon of human language.  Requiescat in pace.

Brian D. Joseph
The Ohio State University


Anttila, Raimo. 1972. An Introduction to Historical and comparative linguistics. New York: The MacMillan Co.

Friedman, Victor A. 2015. A Few of Eric P. Hamp’s Many Contributions to the Study of “South Slavic and Its Neighbors — Distant Past and Present”. Historical Albanian Syllabics by Eric P. Hamp (Kenneth E. Naylor Memorial Lecture series, 9), xix-xxvii. Oxford, MS: Balkanistica.

Hock, Hans Henrich. 1976. Review article on R. Anttila (1972) An Introduction to Historical and comparative linguistics. Language 52.1.202-220.

Hamp, Eric P. 1965. Evidence for Laryngeals in Albanian. Evidence for Laryngeals, ed. Werner Winter, 123-141. The Hague: Mouton and Co.

Hamp, Eric P. 1993. Some Draft Principles for Classification. Nostratic. Sifting the Evidence, ed. by Joseph C. Salmons and Brian D. Joseph 13-15. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Hamp, Eric P. 2007. Studime Krahasuese Për Shqipen [Comparative Studies on Albanian] (Zgjedhja, përgatitja dhe parathënia R. Ismajli, Përkthyen: R. Ismajli, B. Rugova, Rr. Paçarizi, Sh. Munishi, G. Bërlajolli, B. Pllana). Prishtinë: ASHAK (Special Publications LXXXIII, SGJL (Seksioni i Gjuhësisë dhe i Letërsisë) 37).

Hamp, Eric P. 2015. Historical Albanian Syllabics (Kenneth E. Naylor Memorial Lecture series, 9).  Oxford, MS: Balkanistica.

Hamp, Eric P. and Brian D. Joseph. 2007. Austrian engineer Karl Steinmetz: Forgotten Albanologist, sometime linguist. Paper presented at Annual Meeting of the North American Association of the History of the Language Sciences (NAAHoLS), Anaheim, 6 January 2007.

Hamp, Eric P. and Brian D. Joseph. 2008. Albanologist Karl Steinmetz Revisited and Reappreciated as a Linguist. Paper presented at Annual Meeting of the North American Association of the History of the Language Sciences (NAAHoLS), Chicago, 5 January 2008.

Joseph, Brian D. 2015. An Appreciation of Eric P. Hamp and of his Many Contributions to Historical Linguistics. Historical Albanian Syllabics by Eric P. Hamp (Kenneth E. Naylor Memorial Lecture series, 9), xiii-xviii.  Oxford, MS: Balkanistica.

Maynard, Kelly and Brian D. Joseph. 2000. Hamp Lectures on the Albanian Language, Ohio State University 11/29-12/4, 1999. Indo-European Studies Bulletin (University of California at Los Angeles) 9.1 (March-April 2000), 25-27.


  1. Laura Morland said,

    March 4, 2019 @ 12:55 pm

    What a beautiful and inspiring panegyric. I'm grateful that I took the time to read it (and I did, every word). May his désire — for Werner's Law to be taught in high school science classes — come to fruition!

  2. Anthony said,

    March 4, 2019 @ 1:37 pm

    Mr. Hamp was honored on an Albanian postage stamp a few years ago:

  3. Victor Mair said,

    March 4, 2019 @ 5:59 pm

    Thank you very much for writing this wonderful obituary, Brian.

    As one of the six attendees who knew Tocharian, Eric graced the mummies conference I held at Penn in April, 1996. We were friends ever after that. For the conference volume, he wrote a masterful paper titled “Whose Were the Tocharians?: Linguistic Subgroupings and Diagnostic Idiosyncrasy,” in The Bronze Age and Early Iron Age Peoples of Eastern Central Asia, ed. Victor H. Mair (Washington, DC, and Philadelphia: The Institute for the Study of Man and The University of Pennsylvania Museum Publications, 1998), pp. 307–346.

    Incredibly, he wrote that paper by hand over a period of several months on the backs of menus, in the margins of pages from newspapers and journals, and all manner of other scrap paper that he could scrounge up — 3, 4, or 5 pages at a time. He would transmit these installments from unreliable fax machines in some village in Albania or Armenia or wherever he happened to be. When I received them, his writing looked like chicken scratches, and there were arrows and insertions all over the place, with special symbols, characters, and letters laden with diacritical marks, plus intricate charts, tables, and diagrams. Fortunately, a bodhisattva named David Testen converted Eric's handwritten manuscript into a clear, easily readable, though enormously daunting and demanding, typescript.

    When I saw the title and the physical quality of the faxed manuscript, I thought, "Oh, no! We're in for big trouble." I queried Eric once or twice about the title, but he said that's the way he wanted it, and after David produced the typescript, I don't think we ever had to chance a single word. The paper has a bibliography consisting of about a hundred items, over fifty by Eric himself, and they come from an incredible array of small, specialist journals and volumes.

    The production of "Whose Were the Tocharians?" was one of the most amazing scholarly undertakings that I've ever been associated with in my entire life. Eric and I continued to talk about its implications for years later, usually in late night telephone conversations that could last for hours.

    After about a decade, I coaxed Eric into writing a follow-up paper, and this he did with the following work: "The Expansion of the Indo-European Languages: An Indo-Europeanist’s Evolving View", with Annotation and Comments by Douglas Q. Adams, Sino-Platonic Papers, 239 (August, 2013), 1-14. Here I quote the first two paragraphs of the Introduction:


    In 1989 and again in the period 2009–2012 Eric Hamp produced several hand-drawn Stammbäume to represent his understanding of the interrelationships of the various branches of Indo-European. Reproduced here are the 1989 tree and a composite of the 2009–2012 trees (which do not present any differences in branching, but do occasionally have somewhat different notes attached).

    These trees are interesting from at least two perspectives. First and foremost, they represent the mature views of an eminent Indo-Europeanist, one who was equally at home at the micro-level and the macro-level, of the complicated picture of these interrelationships. Secondly, comparing the first and second trees, created almost a quarter of a century apart, gives insight into how he assessed the new data and the new arguments that appeared in this period.


    Eric was a remarkable scholar and a dear friend. I will miss him greatly.

  4. Douglas Adams said,

    March 4, 2019 @ 8:43 pm

    Kudos to Brian Joseph for having captured so well the spirit and personality of so remarkable a person. The "discourse structure" of one of Eric's classes was exactly the same as Brian experienced in a one-on-one conversation. So too, my experience with editing "The Expansion of the Indo-European Languages: An Indo-Europeanist's Evolving View" was exactly the same as Victor's work on "Whose Were the Tocharians": scraps of paper covered with hand written diagrams and a multitude of arrows and apparently cryptic comments scattered all over. But they were only cryptic until one really thought deeply about the situation and came to understand it as Eric did. To say that he was a formative experience in my intellectual life would quite understate things. We will not see his like soon again.

  5. David Marjanović said,

    March 5, 2019 @ 4:05 am

    So… what was "Whose Were the Tocharians" intended to mean? "To whose history do they belong"?

  6. David Marjanović said,

    March 5, 2019 @ 4:32 am

    Hamp's "Prehellenic", an extinct branch of IE he postulated to have been a substrate in Greek, reminds me of this paper on just such a substrate in Greek, Italic and perhaps Slavic – although it doesn't mention the term "Prehellenic" and doesn't cite any of Hamp's work (but does cite similar proposals by other people). This proposed substrate further resembles Hamp's "Prehellenic" in having a particular similarity with Germanic – none other than the abovementioned Verner's law, and one small part of Grimm's!

  7. David Marjanović said,

    March 5, 2019 @ 4:33 am

    …I should explain that I suddenly mentioned "Prehellenic" because I had just read the paper Prof. Mair just linked to, which mentions it very briefly. I take the new paper as (partial?) corroboration of Hamp's proposal.

  8. James Unger said,

    March 8, 2019 @ 8:52 am

    I took courses from Eric as an undergraduate and Masters student at Chicago. Perhaps the most touching honor I ever received was an enthusiastic hand-written letter from him, many years later, full of queries and suggestions triggered by a paper I had just published on Japanese etymologies in the Journal of the American Oriental Society: At a beer party he held in his house in 1967, when he was chair of the department (including a performance of Beatles' songs by Jim McCawley accompanying himself on guitar), I had a chance to look over the bookshelves in Hamp's personal library—the sheer range of titles taught a humbling and inspiring lesson.

  9. neliret said,

    March 9, 2019 @ 9:12 am

    Isn't 'Prishtina' a fairly obviously Slavic toponym?

RSS feed for comments on this post