Terry Kaufman 1937-2022

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Terrence Scott Kaufman was born on June 12, 1937, in Portland, Oregon, and died on March 3, 2022. He earned his B.A. at the University of Chicago in 1959, began his decades-long fieldwork career in 1960, and earned his Ph.D. degree in 1963 at the University of California, Berkeley. His Ph.D. dissertation was a grammar of Tzeltal. He taught at The Ohio State University (1963-1964) and at Berkeley (1964-1970), and then spent the rest of his teaching career at the University of Pittsburgh (1971-2011). He was a valued mentor to the many students he trained at Pitt and in his MesoAmerican documentation projects, and a dear friend to many of the rest of us. As his old friend Lyle Campbell put it recently, Terry was truly "astonishing in the breadth and depth of his knowledge of seemingly everything, of his seemingly superhuman ability as a fieldworker, picking up instantly on the most subtle of things, getting more documentation done in a week's fieldwork on a language than most others could achieve in years of effort".

Terry was a dominant figure in MesoAmerican linguistics: he had first-hand fieldwork experience with more than thirty MesoAmerican languages; he co-founded and directed the Proyecto Lingüistico "Francisco Marroquín" (PLFM, 1970-1979), which trained native speakers of Indigenous languages of Guatemala in practical linguistics and oversaw the documentation of twelve Mayan languages; and he ran the Project for the Documentation of the Languages of MesoAmerica (PDLMA, 1994-2010), bringing linguists — undergraduates, graduate students, and established scholars — together with native speakers of many Indigenous languages of Mexico. His main interest besides the documentation of underdescribed languages was historical linguistics, especially but by no means only the histories of Mayan, Mixe-Zoquean, Uto-Aztecan, Oto-Manguean, and Xincan languages of MesoAmerica. Outside this area, one of his most-cited publications is his 1990 article `Linguistic history in South America: what we know and how to know more'; this research was updated and his classifications extended in 1994 (in Moseley & Asher, eds., The Atlas of the world's languages) and 2007 (in the Atlas of the world's languages, 2nd edition). His other descriptive and historical interests included English, Romani, Siouan, Low Dutch, Hokan, Chibchan, and pidgin & creole languages. He is the only linguist I know of who has a section entitled 'Language Discoveries' on his CV: the section lists three Mayan languages, Teco (discovered in 1967), Sacapultec (1971), and Sipacapeno (1971). Another major interest, decipherment, was most prominently displayed in his work with John Justeson on Epi-Olmec hieroglyphic writing, including their cover story in Science (259:1703-1711, March 19, 1993). More recently he published Notes on the decipherment of Tartessian as Celtic (Journal of Indo-European Studies monograph #62, 2015).

Terry's interests ranged widely, and his research productivity was immense, but much, maybe most, of his work remained unpublished: it almost seemed as if he couldn't be bothered to follow through with publication once he had worked out a problem to his own satisfaction. When I became interested in Chinook Jargon, for instance, he lent me his huge box of grammatical analyses, lexicon, old correspondence with experts on the pidgin, and other materials; but his only publication on the language, as far as I know, was a four-page article in a volume on pidginization and creolization (Dell Hymes, ed., 1971). Luckily, his papers have been archived, most in The Archive of the Indigenous Languages of Latin America at the University of Texas, and the rest in the archives of the Survey of California and Other Indian Languages at the University of California, Berkeley.

I'll close on a personal note. Terry and I were colleagues and friends at the University of Pittsburgh for twenty-six years, collaborating on a number of projects: language contact (one conference paper, one article, and a 1988 book); a co-taught seminar on Indo-European linguistics; a long-running series of seventeen biennial Spring Workshops on Theory and Method in Linguistic Reconstruction (1986-2018); a joint 1983 appearance on West Virginia Public Television, where we tried (and probably failed) to convince the audience that no, carvings on a West Virginia cave wall were not the 6th-century Old Irish Ogham writing that the notorious linguistic pseudoscientist Barry Fell claimed they were; and many Linguistics Department parties, where Terry could usually be persuaded to give us his elegant rendition of the Frozen Logger song and where he always put the finishing touches on cooking the hottest pot of chili. I missed him when I left Pitt at the end of 1998 and afterward saw him only at our Reconstruction workshops; and now I'll miss him forever.


  1. Dan Everett said,

    March 7, 2022 @ 3:58 pm

    Terry and I were colleagues for a decade at the University of Pittsburgh and friends for much longer. I miss him terribly.

    In the mid 90s I organized an NSF-sponsored workshop on Arawan languages in Brazil. Speakers from each of the Arawan languages were present, along with linguists working on each of those languages. I had invited Terry and Bob Dixon to help consult on the languages and to lecture in the mornings. But Terry, though his lectures were great, didn't like that arrangement. He came to me one day and gave me an ultimatum" "Either you let me do my own research with native speakers or I am out of here." So I arranged for him to work with a Deni speaker and a Surui (Tupian) speaker who happened to be there. He prepared 5×7 cards and spent all day every day with both speakers eliciting names of plants in local Portuguese and in their native languages. To each name he added the Latin scientific term. At the end of two weeks he had produced the greatest ethnobotanical studies ever on those two languages and, in my opinion, the best ever done on any indigenous language of Brazil. He was indefatigable, running on sugar cane rum and black beans for the most part.

    A philosopher asked Terry once at a dinner at Sally and Rich Thomason's house "So, what is your speciality?" I immediately answered before Terry could – "Facts." He knew everything so far as I could tell. (That is to say, everything I was curious about in his presence).

    Terry got interested in linguistics reading a dictionary at his grandma's house when he was a little boy (so he told me). He told her "They have a lot of good words in there!" And he was hooked.

    Also in my opinion, he was the best field researcher in the history of linguistics (yes, that is saying a lot).

  2. Rosemary Beam de Azcona said,

    March 8, 2022 @ 8:57 pm

    Terry gave me my start in Zapotecan linguistics as an undergraduate student on the PDLMA. He instilled in me a work ethic, the desire to make the most out of any time I can spend learning from speakers of Zapotecan languages. He created a community of scholars to talk to about Mesoamerican linguistics. His reconstruction of Proto-Zapotec, including his reconstruction of Zapotecan verbal morphology, are ideas I think about every day of my life as I teach them to students and try to build upon them myself. He changed the course of my life dramatically and permanently. Every single thing I've done in my career since 1996 can in some way be traced back to him and the opportunities he gave me. So many others could say the same. We often talk of these academic lineages, for me this takes on a new significance as I contemplate his impact.

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