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LINGUIST List 21.2

Mon Jan 04 2010

All: Obituary: Donald Steinmetz, 1938-2009

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        1.    Curt Rice, Obituary: Donald Steinmetz, 1938-2009

Message 1: Obituary: Donald Steinmetz, 1938-2009
Date: 02-Jan-2010
From: Curt Rice <curt.riceuit.no>
Subject: Obituary: Donald Steinmetz, 1938-2009
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It is with a tragic sense of loss that we write to inform you of the death
of our teacher, our mentor, our colleague and our friend, Donald Steinmetz,
Professor of Languages at Augsburg College, Minneapolis, on December 28th,
2009.

Don's lifelong interest in languages began at his childhood home in
Stillwater, Minnesota, where he heard his grandparents speak German to one
another. He asked them to speak German to him as well, laying the basis for
much of his future work and creating the conditions for close contact with
his extended family in Germany, which he maintained throughout his life.

When he was a teenager, a Russian family moved into Don's neighborhood, and
he again asked them to speak their language with him. He told of nearly
moving in with them for a period to develop his Russian skills,
establishing a pattern that he would follow as he developed advanced
proficiency in many, many languages. Besides native-like abilities in
German and Russian, he also taught Mandarin Chinese and Spanish. He spoke
Dutch with his beloved wife, Annelies.

We also know him to be a fluent speaker of French, Danish, Icelandic,
Ojibwa, Quechecal (Guatamala), and Italian (although he said he had to stop
speaking Italian at some point because it interfered with his Spanish). He
knew and taught Yiddish, too, and loved spending time in New York,
nurturing those skills. He could pull up from memory both examples and
grammatical properties from Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, Old English, Gothic,
Hebrew, Romansch, Hungarian, Rumanian and lost varieties and stages of
Germanic languages. He also easily read many, many more languages.

Sometimes those of us who were his students would try to find out how many
languages he knew. When we asked, he would say he didn't know. If we pushed
a bit and asked him how many languages he could teach an introductory
course for, he would pause, perhaps to start counting, but then he would
say, "I could teach an introductory course for any language!" This comment
was not a reflection of immodesty, which he never displayed; he was simply
reporting a fact.

Don Steinmetz finished high school very early, and went on to take all his
degrees at the University of Minnesota, where, as one of his classmates
recalls, "[He] raised the grade point average for all of us, and we Germans
had to work so much harder with him around." He worked briefly at Purdue
University before returning to Minnesota, where he began teaching at
Augsburg College in 1968. His visiting positions ranged from a year as a
Fulbrighter in Kiel, Germany, to shorter visits at several institutions,
including most recently a month in Tromsø, Norway, in May 2009.

Don's research passion over the past 25 years was grammatical gender. He
noted that people use this category productively. He would go through
issues of Der Spiegel and extract many examples of loanwords from English,
showing that all gender categories would be used. Don would draw the only
possible scientific conclusion: There must be a system. His goal was to
identify that system. He published many papers on this topic, but the
program is most clearly stated in his 1986 article in Word, "Two principles
and some rules for gender in German: inanimate nouns."

We remember the period in which his theory was being developed, including a
day when he proudly announced that he had been through an entire German
dictionary, and had identified only eight nouns that defied the predictions
of his approach - and of course he had explanations for these, as well. We
also note with interest that the theory presented there anticipates all of
the key properties of Optimality Theory as developed in the 1990s: Violable
constraints, hierarchical constraint ranking, competition among candidates,
etc.

Don's work on gender inspired many of us and it is widely cited. The
criticism that his theory met was, to our knowledge, never based on the
structure of the theory, nor was the logic of his general conclusion
disputed. It was instead based on details of the theory, on the specific
constraints he proposed. The combination of resistance to his specific
constraints and failure to find alternatives led many of those who shared
Don's interest in grammatical gender to abandon his general conclusion that
the assignment of nouns to gender categories must be as predictable the
assignment of lexemes to other categories. Instead, one meets the claim
that gender assignment must be non-trivially random.

While we know that Don deeply objected to this view, we also know that he
loved the conversations and the debate. And scientific disagreements
notwithstanding, he always impressed his colleagues with his vast knowledge
of the data, his passion for the topic, and his curiosity.

The enthusiasm we experienced in him as a researcher was coupled with the
enthusiasm we experienced in him as a teacher. His Introduction to
Linguistics was for each of us one of the most exciting academic
experiences we've ever had the privilege to be a part of. We were excited
by the subjects he introduced, in no small part because of the way he
taught. His factual knowledge of a range of languages was astonishing: we
can still see him in front of a blackboard that has examples ranging from
Turkish to Chinese, from Russian to Hebrew. His drive, curiosity,
creativity and enthusiasm were positively infectious. And, he was a
wonderful edition of the caricature of the genius professor.

As his students and friends, we cherished and revered Don's linguistic
genius, combined with his ever-youthful, energetic curiosity and
intellectual creativity. Deep in his very essence, Don was an optimist with
a pure sense of humor. He was utterly unpretentious and easily found shared
interests with anyone he met. His curiosity and interest extended far
beyond languages and linguistics, to include politics, cooking, history,
geography, and much more.

Perhaps Don's biggest challenge in life was his health, the effects of
which culminated in a heart transplant nearly 14 years ago. He was moved to
tears every time he would tell about the young man who was his donor. Don
kept in close contact with his donor's family, and reported many remarkable
experiences both with them and with his new heart, a topic for which he
unsurprisingly developed considerable scientific interest. But his health
would continue to be difficult. Last week he entered the hospital for
abdominal surgery. Complications from the surgery and subsequent treatment
took his life.

Don Steinmetz influenced the lives of countless students, colleagues and
friends. He was always full of encouragement and hope. He was a polyglot of
extraordinary proportions, and he was a genius.

Don also had a rich personal life. He adored his wife, Annelies, and he
cherished his relationships with his sons. Our thoughts go to them in these
difficult times.

Even as we mourn his death, we are immensely grateful for Don's life, which
radiated exceptional, beautiful energy; and for the enrichment he brought
to our lives and the lives of untold others.

Curt Rice (University of Tromsø)
Kiel Christianson (University of Illinois)
Maghiel van Crevel (Leiden University)

Linguistic Field(s): Not Applicable

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