LINGUIST List 8.1309

Tue Sep 16 1997

FYI: Obituary/Biography-Robert Hetzron

Editor for this issue: Martin Jacobsen <>


  1. Grover Hudson, Robert Hetzron

Message 1: Robert Hetzron

Date: Fri, 12 Sep 1997 10:12:35 -0400
From: Grover Hudson <>
Subject: Robert Hetzron

Robert Hetzron

Robert Hetzron left a wide and rich array of publications as evidence
of his extraordinary knowledge of theory and data, his rare
imagination and creativity, and great love of languages and
linguistics which will be greatly missed in all the several fields in
which he worked with unique insight and energy for over thirty- five
years: Semitic, Hungarian, Cushitic, Afroasiatic, and theoretical
linguistics encompassing phonology, morphology, and syntax.

	Robert did his M.A. at Hebrew University under H. J.
Polotsky, writing a thesis on Amharic pronominalization, and his
doctorate in Near Eastern Languages at UCLA, finishing in 1966, a time
in which he benefited from the ambitiously growing linguistics program
being developed there by Robert Stockwell, as well as by the strong
Near Eastern Studies Department built and led by Wolf Leslau, under
whose tutelage in 1965-66 he undertook fieldwork for his dissertation
on The Verbal System of Southern Agaw (Awngi), a Cushitic language of
central Ethiopia, subsequently published as University of California
monograph in Near Eastern Studies 12 (1969). He later complemented
this study with one on 'The nominal system of Awngi (Southern Agaw)'
(Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 41, 1978), and
other articles on Agaw.

	During his short stay in Ethiopia he was able, surprisingly
but certainly by hard and well focused work, to acquire extensive data
as well on several of the Gurage languages, which became a topic to
which he regularly returned and on which he was busy at the time of
his death on August 12, which came, indeed, weeks after he had
organized an informal seminar on the Gurage languages at his home in
Santa Barbara, where he had gone to teach immediately after finishing
his studies at UCLA. There over the years Robert always welcomed his
friends, and entertained everyone with his conversational expertise
and, if you were lucky, by his gourmet cooking as well, and by a short
walk down the hill to watch sunset over the Channel Islands. Despite
the tranquility and beauty of the place, Robert felt isolated in Santa
Barbara, and I wish that I and others had had more occasions and made
more time to visit there.

	Robert's first publication appears to have been on his native
Hungarian, 'L'accent en hongrois' (Bulletin de la Societe de
linguistique de Paris 52, 1962), but he soon began to write on
Amharic, with 'La rection du theme factitif en amharique' (La Museon
76, 1963), followed soon by 'La voyelle du sixieme ordre in Amharic'
(Journal of African Language 3, 1964), which examined the near
complete predictability of the Amharic high central vowel, a problem
to which students of Amharic have been responding since, and then,
based on his M.A. thesis, 'Pronominalization in Amharic' (Journal of
Semitic Studies 11, 1966). His careful study of case usage in
Amharic, 'Toward a case grammar of Amharic' (Studies in African
Linguistics 1, 1970), was the first part of what was to have been a
longer work which, unfortunately, he did not finish.

	He soon began to write on Gurage languages, which, more than
Agaw, connected with his broader and diachronic interests --in Semitic
and, more generally, Afroasiatic. His first Gurage paper (certainly
written during his mere seven months in Ethiopia -- which fieldwork
was soon to yield three books) was a collaboration with Habte Mariam
Marcos, 'Des traits superposes en ennemor' (Journal of Ethiopian
Studies 4, 1966), followed by a truly seminal paper, 'Main verb
markers in Northern Gurage' (Africa, 1968), which argued for the
preservation in these languages of a Semitic copula, in which article
he also introduced his innovative and controversially detailed
classification of Ethiopian Semitic. He developed this classification
further in studies which examined specific morphological features
which he argued to be genetically diagnostic as arbitrary innovations
not attributable to heritage or accident, such as 'Internal
labialization in the tt-group of Outer South Ethiopic' (Journal of the
American Oriental Society 91, 1971), and 'Two notes on Semitic
laryngeals in East Gurage' (Phonetica 19, 1970), which reconstructed
the Semitic laryngeals from reflexes as nasal insertions. He followed
these with his influential and still standard survey of historical
Ethiopian Semitic, Ethiopian Semitic: Studies in Classification
(Journal of Semitic Studies monograph 2, 1972), and then a book on the
Gurage languages less the Eastern sub-group: The Gunnan-Gurage
Languages (Istituto orientale di Napoli, 1977). His Ethiopian Semitic
classification became one of his contributions to Language in Ethiopia
(M. L. Bender et al, eds., 1976).

	His work on Gurage classification and the controversy which
this inspired caused Robert to realize the importance of two
little-understood principles in genetic classification, which he
elaborated in 'Two principles of genetic classification' (Lingua,
1976): 'archaic heterogeneity' and 'shared morpholexical innovations',
and applied in papers such as 'The evidence for perfect *y'aqtul and
jussive *yaqt'ul in proto-Semitic' (Journal of Semitic Studies 14,
1969), 'An archaism in the Cushitic verbal conjugation' (IV Congresso
Internationale di Studi Etiopici, 1974), and 'Innovations in the
Semitic numeral system' (Journal of Semitic Studies 22, 1977). As a
result, he was able for the first time to give coherence to Cushitic
as a genetic group in 'The limits of Cushitic' (Sprache und Geschichte
in Afrika 2, 1980, written in London on a Guggenheim fellowship), and
new perspective on subgrouping within Semitic in 'La division des
langues semitiques' (Premier Congres International de Etudes Semitique
et Chamito-Semitique, 1974).

	Soon Robert knew Afroasiatic as well as anyone, but perhaps
owing to the critical eye toward unripe ideas which he applied to his
own work as well as that of others (I will mention only a couple of
his many reviews here, which invariably add significantly to the works
reviewed), he avoided claims concerning Afroasiatic subgrouping and
reconstruction, even in his masterful survey of diachronic and
synchronic Afroasiatic in The World's Major Languages (Bernard Comrie,
ed., 1987; which volume also includes his surveys of Hebrew and

	Along the way, and despite the fact that at UC Santa Barbara
he lacked the important stimulus of teaching in these areas, Robert
energetically pursued several lines of well-developed interest in
general theoretical linguistics, writing influential articles on word
order, including 'Presentative function and presentative movement'
(Studies in African Linguistics supplement, 1971) and 'Disjoining
conjoined structures' (Papers in Linguistics 5, 1972), and on the
phonology-syntax interface with his 'Phonology in syntax' (Journal of
Linguistics 8, 1972) and 'Where the grammar fails' (Language 51,
1975). With thorough command of Afroasiatic and Hungarian and good
knowledge of Romance linguistics (especially evident in e.g. his
'Clitic pronouns and their linear representation' Forum Linguisticum
1, 1977; he also published articles on Somali, Syriac, and Omotic),
and as a contributor in several areas of theoretical linguistics,
Robert was one of very few scholars fully able to review wide-ranging
works like Current Trends in Linguistics VI: South-west Asia and North
Africa (Thomas Sebeok, ed., 1970, reviewed in Linguistics 140, 1974,
where he noted the likely Afroasiatic roots of root and pattern
morphology) and the four volumes of Universals of Human Language
(Joseph Greenberg, ed., 1978, reviewed in Lingua 50, 1980).

	Unfortunately I cannot speak with competence about Robert's
numerous publications on Hungarian linguistics, but it seems that his
contributions there must be outstanding and often unique, particularly
his several papers on Hungarian accent, from his first, 1962, article
mentioned above, to his recent 'Prosodic morphemes in Hungarian'
(Approaches to Hungarian, vol. 4, ed. by I. Kenesei and Cs. Pleh,
1992), which places Hungarian near the middle in a continuum of
tonality in languages.

	As his health failed in recent years, Robert continued to work
with energy in all the areas of his interest, and enjoyed the joys and
frustrations of editorship in bringing about himself an up-to-date
manual of comparative Semitic the need for which he had called
attention in his Semitic survey in The World's Major Languages. This
volume, The Semitic Languages, with 24 authors, should appear this
year from Routledge, and in it he himself provides articles on the
place of Semitic in Afroasiatic, and on Outer South Ethiopic.

	Maybe the literature has now grown too vast, and maybe the
world now provides too many diversions, discouraging the possibility
of other linguists with such an exceptional combination of knowledge,
insight, creativity, and energy. At least there was Robert Hetzron,
and the many who did not know him can benefit from his rich and
encompassing body of work, in which one can always find lengthy and
thorough reference to prior work, typically with generous
acknowledgements of his consultations with others. I have been able
to mention just a selection of his publications here, and have omitted
very many items which others would surely insist must be mentioned.
Everyone has the benefit of his work now, and those of us fortunate to
have known Robert can continue to benefit as well as from our fond
memories of him.

	Robert's ex-wife Gabriella Barber is cataloging and organizing
the unfinished papers which Robert left behind to see that this work
completed and made available. Those with knowledge about these
projects and otherwise willing to contribute should contact her at (698 Zink Ave, Santa Barbara, Ca 93111)

Grover Hudson
Michigan State University

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