RIP, Michael Silverstein (1945-2020)

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Michael Silverstein, a titan in the field of linguistic anthropology, passed away on Friday. UChicago News has an obituary today.

Prof. Michael Silverstein, a leading University of Chicago anthropologist who made groundbreaking contributions to linguistic anthropology and helped define the field of sociolinguistics, died July 17 in Chicago following a battle with brain cancer. He was 74.

The Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor of Anthropology, Linguistics and Psychology, Silverstein was known for his highly influential research on language-in-use as a social and cultural practice and for his long-term fieldwork on Native language speakers of the Pacific Northwest and of Aboriginal Australia. Most recently, Silverstein examined the effects of globalization, nationalism and other social forces on local speech communities.

“Over a half-century at the University of Chicago, he produced a body of work that fundamentally changed the place of linguistics in the field, with foundational contributions to the understanding of language structure, sociolinguistics and semiotics, as well as the history of linguistics and anthropology,” said Prof. Joe Masco, chair of the Department of Anthropology. “His erudition, sense of humor, love of scholarship, of teaching, of conversation and substantive debate is legendary and helped establish the intellectual strength of UChicago in all the many different fields of which he was part.”

Among the remembrances in the obituary is this one from his fellow linguistic anthropologist at the University of Chicago, Susan Gal:

“Michael was a man known for his enormous energy, erudition, precision and charm,” said Susan Gal, the Mae and Sidney G. Metzl Distinguished Service Professor. “Less recognized was his work behind the scenes to make knowledge happen by and for all of us. His conceptual approach radically redefined the place of language in social and cultural life; it was first of all brilliantly and excitingly his own.

“Yet scholarship is indispensably a collaborative effort, a continuing, creative conversation among students and colleagues. His practice matched this teaching. That is why Michael was a devoted institution-builder, a tireless organizer of lasting infrastructures for critical, ethical discussion.”

Michael was my graduate adviser when I studied linguistic anthropology at the University of Chicago, and I can safely say he was the most brilliant person I've ever known. When I heard the news of his passing, it opened up a flood of memories from my grad school years and all I learned from Michael. It was his personal call (when I was doing research in Indonesia in 1996) that convinced me that Chicago was where I had to go to grad school. Starting in the anthro program that fall, I found that Michael was enormously generous with his time from the start. When I asked if I could do a "directed readings" independent study with him (which took a bit of chutzpah as a first-year), he happily agreed. Our lively discussions in his office would often go on for two hours or more, as he'd disregard his constantly ringing phone.

In my second year, I got to take part in a workshop he organized for ling-anth students known as "the clubhouse," where we'd present our research in a convivial and supportive environment. And then there was his legendary "Language in Culture" lecture course, which I had heard about long before I got to Chicago, since my undergraduate adviser at Yale, Joseph Errington, was a student of Michael's back in the '70s. Generations of linguistic anthropologists benefited from his unmatched enthusiasm and tireless devotion to teaching and advising. In my files I find drafts of research proposals with Michael's voluminous, meticulous annotations, his standard practice with all of his students. I was one of the students who nominated him for the University of Chicago's Faculty Award for Excellence in Graduate Teaching in 2000, a recognition he richly deserved.

Michael was sui generis in so many ways. He didn't publish full-length monographs as was expected in the discipline, but instead packed books-worth of insights into densely worded articles that students would strive to decipher. He'd share offprints of his papers and lectures, some of which were never published but nonetheless circulated among students like precious amulets. One of my proudest moments as a young grad student was when I learned that in a 1997 public lecture at the Chicago Humanities Festival on "Words at Work, Words at Play," he incorporated some of my research on Sundanese wordplay into his presentation.

Even after I drifted away from academia, Michael often sent supportive notes as I navigated writing about language for a broader audience. I can still hear his quick-witted chuckling voice, always ready with some outrageously perfect pun. I'll miss that voice but will forever cherish the memory of it.

Update: Here is a video put out last year by the American Philosophical Society in which Michael recounts how his interest in sociolinguistics and Native American languages came together as an undergraduate linguistics major at Harvard.


  1. Frederick B Henry said,

    July 20, 2020 @ 5:48 pm

    Michael was on my committee as well, and I came to Chicago too after a personal phone call from him. I began in fall of '91, so clearly overlapped with you; I'm sorry we never met. Your experience with him in the reading/study course mirrors mine. I have great memories of that office and the immensely stimulating conversations I had with him there. I wanted to share one fond recollection that illustrates his quirky but always kind sense of inquisitive humor: One bone-achingly cold winter morning I was crossing through the old parking lot between Reg and University on the way to class. On my head was a green loden front-brimmed hat with fur or fleece flaps. Our paths crossed, he looked at me with a quizzical smile, and said in that inimitable, precisely articulated diction: "Nice hunting cap!" As a relatively new grad student I was somewhat perplexed, anxious to cut the right figure, so I could only respond with a quick "thanks!", attempting to be chipper. I always recall that because as I came to know him better I realized he was being quite friendly and genuine. He was an incredible scholar, a generous teacher, and an intriguing man. I was shocked to hear of his passing. Vale Mr. Silverstein. (And back then, at least for us, we were encouraged to use Mr/Ms–in our cohort at least).

  2. Bill Benzon said,

    July 21, 2020 @ 3:58 am

    Damn! He was very kind to me once, suggesting to some of his students that they might be interested in hearing me speak on something. They asked, and I suggested graffiti, which was fine with him. So I went to Chicago in January of 2012 and a good time was had by all. After the seminar he hosted us to a wonderful meal at a Chinese restaurant and kept the conversation flowing as generously as the food.

  3. Sally Thomason said,

    July 21, 2020 @ 12:48 pm

    I first met Michael Silverstein at a Chicago Linguistic Society meeting around 1975. I was a struggling assistant professor at the time and interested in Native American pidgins, and I had been working on a paper on the 17th-century Delaware Pidgin; I desperately needed to read Ives Goddard's Harvard dissertation on Delaware, but it was only available from Harvard at a cost of $1 per page, and that was too steep for my budget. I knew Silverstein had been working on Chinook Jargon, so I was eager to talk to him. I introduced myself and mentioned my Delaware Pidgin project and my failure to get hold of a copy of Goddard's dissertation; and I asked if I could talk to him about Chinook Jargon. He looked at me, not smiling, and said No. Just the one word, no polite fiction about being too busy. I crawled away (I think only metaphorically), humiliated. The next day he walked up to me and handed me his personal copy of Goddard's dissertation, full of his own (Silverstein's) annotations, and told me to send it back to him when I'd finished with it. I was overwhelmed. I'd have loved to talk to him, and I still felt depressed at his refusal to converse with me, but his generosity in lending that dissertation to someone he didn't know (and didn't want to know) was astonishing. I've always been immensely grateful for that act of kindness. I did get to know him later on, and like everyone else I greatly enjoyed his conversation, but what I most remember is that first meeting — the snub, but especially the generosity.

  4. Anthony said,

    July 21, 2020 @ 9:29 pm

    I took Silverstein's class in non-generative phonology (actual name of the course) ca. 1973. My silly thought (such is youth) was that it would be of antiquarian interest only, but it was truly fascinating. There was nothing anthropological or sociolinguistic in what we were discussing―he was the best of the best also regarding linguistic theory tout court. As all of us graduate students supposedly could read French, German, or Russian, he didn't mind assigning us Trubetzkoy's book, at the time available only in those languages.

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