LINGUIST List 25.2914

Mon Jul 14 2014

All: Obituary: Peter Koch (1951-2014)

Editor for this issue: Sara Couture <>

Date: 13-Jul-2014
From: Richard Waltereit <>
Subject: Obituary: Peter Koch (1951-2014)
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Peter Koch, professor of Romance linguistics at the University of Tübingen, died unexpectedly on 7 July 2014, just 63 years old. He is survived by his wife Evi, his son Johannes, daughter-in-law Friederike, and one grandchild.

Peter Koch was born in Hanover, in northern Germany, in 1951. He studied Classics and French at the universities of Göttingen, Poitiers, and Freiburg. After a teacher training course, he completed, in 1979, his PhD on French verb valency and case semantics. Subsequently, he was appointed to an assistant professor position at the same university. He swiftly became a key figure in the university’s Sonderforschungbereich (Collaborative Research Programme) on written vs. spoken language. In 1987, he was awarded the Habilitation (higher doctorate) at Freiburg, with a thesis on discourse genres in Old Italian. In 1988, he was appointed associate professor at the university of Mainz, before being promoted to a full professorship at Free University of Berlin in 1990. In 1996 he moved to another chair at Tübingen university. He held visiting professorships at the universities of Naples (Istituto Orientale), Paris-Sorbonne, Paris-7, and Ecole Normale Supérieure Lyon. In 2007, he was elected full member of the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences. He is the author of four monographs, seven edited books, and more than 120 articles. His productivity, the breadth of his work, and the diversity of areas to which he made crucial contributions are awe-inspiring.

In his PhD thesis, published in 1981 as Verb, Valenz, Verfügung (Heidelberg: Winter), he presented an original theory of argument structure and case roles in French verbs of possession, couched in a Tesnière-inspired dependency grammar framework. Its key contribution is that case roles of verbs are derived from verba vicaria used as anaphor for propositions in discourse. This model has been influential in dependency grammar theory and underpinned some of his later work on lexical semantic change, argument alternations (metataxis), and lexical typology.

After completing his PhD, Peter changed tack slightly. He was enthused by the electric atmosphere of the early days at the Freiburg Sonderforschungbereich on oral vs. written language. With Wulf Oesterreicher, he shaped its key theoretical concept of language of immediacy (Nähesprache) vs. language of distance (Distanzsprache). These typically, but crucially not exclusively, underlie spoken vs. written language, respectively. The genesis of their jointly authored paper, eventually published in an article in Romanistisches Jahrbuch in 1985, is surrounded by legend: It arose in the context of a graduate seminar. The two authors locked themselves away, together with crates of books, for a weekend in Wulf’s holiday cottage in the Black Forest. The impact of the new theoretical tool was massive and continues to this day. It allowed, for the first time, to place written vs. spoken language in a comprehensive model making crucial reference to their context of use. Suddenly it made sense that the first written records of the Romance languages were pieces of discourse that is normally spoken, such as oaths and riddles. The model inspired scores of researchers, first at the Sonderforschungsbereich and then more widely in linguistics, to rethink properties of spoken language, genre (discourse traditions), the history of writing, literacy, and the genesis of creole languages, among many other applications. In his higher doctorate (Habilitation) thesis, Peter further elaborated the model and offered a thorough analysis of discourse traditions in Old Italian based on the immediacy/distance model. A monograph-size synthesis of the work on written vs. spoken language, written again with Wulf Oesterreicher, followed in 1990. This book was significantly revised and updated for a Spanish translation in 2007 (Madrid: Gredos).

His 1987 unpublished habilitation lecture, whose manuscript continues to circulate informally, on similarity and contiguity as pervasive cognitive principles in language announced another change of tack. Peter started working on cognitive lexical semantics, in both synchrony and diachrony. A very fruitful collaboration with Andreas Blank began in 1991 at Free University of Berlin. The same rigorous theoretical mindset that inspired earlier work on spoken vs. written language, searching for a few underlying principles that make a vast range of phenomena fall into place, led the pair to ground lexical semantic change in the cognitive principles underlying metaphor and metonymy. Key publications of this period were articles on prototype semantics in Romanistisches Jahrbuch and Zeitschrift für französische Sprache und Literatur and the volume on Historical Semantics and Cognition (de Gruyter), co-edited with Andreas in 1999. He also began designing, with Andreas and Paul Gévaudan, the onomasiological etymological dictionary of Romance languages Decolar (Dictionnaire étymologique et cognitif des langues romanes). Its entries trace the trajectory of a concept and its changes via conceptual relations such as metaphor and metonymy, rather than the change of meaning of words. After his appointment to a Romance linguistics chair at Tübingen, he was awarded a large grant by Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft for Decolar. His work in lexical semantics led over to his fourth major field of research, lexical typology. He was successful with applications for constituent projects in lexical typology and language change in the Tübingen Sonderforschungsbereich Linguistic data structures in each of its three instalments from 1999 to 2008, as well as in the current Sonderforschungsbereich Construction of meaning. He worked tirelessly and never compromised on standards. At Tübingen, he could harvest the fruits of his work, earning him numerous invitations for visiting professorships and keynote lectures. He was greatly saddened by the untimely deaths of his Tübingen colleague and friend Brigitte Schlieben-Lange in 2000, and of Andreas Blank in 2001. At Tübingen, he also supervised to completion a great number of PhD students. Indeed, he was instrumental in setting up and securing funding for Tübingen’s doctoral training centre on ambiguity, which has brought together linguists and literary scholars. On the occasion of his 60th birthday in 2011, he was presented with a festschrift with the title Rahmen des Sprechens. Beiträge zu Valenztheorie, Varietätenlinguistik, Kreolistik, Kognitiver und Historischer Semantik (Tübingen: Narr), edited by Sarah Dessì Schmid, Ulrich Detges, Paul Gévaudan, Wiltrud Mihatsch and Richard Waltereit.

Peter was a scholar very much in the Humboldtian tradition who believed in, and sought, mutual inspiration of teaching and research. He inspired and prepared students to engage in research. They saw that he was at the forefront of research in his field, they saw his enthusiasm, his dedication and his warm personality, and they saw that he spared no effort in helping them and in giving feedback. Conversely, his classes would inspire him in his own work. Still legendary is the winter 1992/93 graduate seminar on historical semantics, which inspired a number of PhD and MA theses under his supervision. He liked his students and created opportunities for staff-student socializing. He was a key member of the department’s staff-student band, “Nonostante”, where he played the keyboard. At Tübingen, he and Brigitte Schlieben-Lange, later Johannes Kabatek, and more recently Sarah Dessì Schmid, convened a weekly Romance linguistics research seminar series where students, staff, and guest speakers presented work in the field. This became the spiritual home of several generations of research students and early career researchers in Romance linguistics. More broadly, he loved discussions and debates, about linguistics but also politics, and he never needed a break.

Peter was a whole-hearted Romanist. While his work concentrated on French and Italian, he covered he whole range of Romance languages and had a special flair for Sardinian, which he spoke fluently. He fought for the unity of Romance linguistics as a field and opposed attempts to break it up in single-language subject areas.

Martin Haspelmath recently said: “Peter Koch was universally respected by those who knew him, and loved by all those who were closer to him." I couldn’t agree more.

A list of his publications is on his webpage at:

Linguistic Field(s): Discipline of Linguistics

Page Updated: 14-Jul-2014