LINGUIST List 26.2912

Tue Jun 16 2015

All: Obituary: Hans-Jürgen Sasse (1943-2015)

Editor for this issue: Malgorzata Cavar <>

Date: 09-Jun-2015
From: Dejan Matic <>
Subject: Obituary: Hans-Jürgen Sasse (1943-2015)
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Hans-Jürgen Sasse (April 30th 1943 – January 14th 2015)

Hans-Jürgen Sasse, one of the most subtle typologists of our time, a great
explorer of languages and a descriptive linguist, teacher and friend, died on
January 14th in Cologne, Germany, after a long and excruciating illness.

The major stations of Hans-Jürgen’s life were Berlin, Munich and Cologne. He
was born in Berlin in 1943, where he grew up to become a real Berliner, armed
with a pervasive sense of irony and a somewhat detached attitude to things
shared by many inhabitants of the then insular city. In 1970, he obtained his
doctoral degree with a description of an Arabic dialect spoken in Turkey
(Mhallamiye) at the University of Munich, where he also completed his
Habilitationschrift on the morphology of the verb in Galab (Daasanach), a
Cushitic language of Ethiopia, in 1975. After years of teaching and research
in Munich, he moved to Cologne in 1987 to become the head of the Department of
General Linguistics and stayed there for the rest of his life. These major
stations were interspersed with numerous places where he conducted fieldwork,
from Turkey, Ethiopia and Kenya, via Greece and Albania, all the way to Canada
and Australia.

The breadth of Hans-Jürgen’s linguistic interests corresponded to this
diversity of languages he worked on. He was a descriptive and historical
linguist: we owe him detailed descriptions of a number of previously unknown
linguistic varieties around the globe (Boni, Galab, Dullay, Mhallamiye,
Arvanitika, and Cayuga, among others), a reconstruction of many aspects of
Proto-Cushitic phonology and morphology, and one of the first etymological
dictionaries of an African language (Burji). At the same time, he was a highly
original typologist and theoretical linguist who established a new way of
comparing language-specific patterns of interaction between lexicon and
grammar and of looking at the typology of word classes. He was one of the
first to discuss (and cast doubt upon) the controversial discourse-pragmatic
category of theticity, to pay attention to the pragmatic correlates of noun
incorporation and word order variation and operationalize the vague notion of
subject prominence. His is one of the most influential theories of language
death; he proposed a radical and controversial theory of parts of speech and a
novel formalisation of the notions of aspect and aktionsart. If his interests
were constrained in any way, it was through his special liking for complex
morphology: a language without intricate verb morphology could hardly ever
capture his interest.

Hans-Jürgen’s work with small linguistic communities around the globe incited
his concern for language endangerment at a time when massive disappearance of
languages was not taken seriously by the linguistic community. He was
instrumental in raising awareness of this issue both within the discipline and
in general public; he was crucially involved in the founding of the German
Society for Endangered Languages (GBS) and was a key figure in establishing
the widely known DoBeS programme of the Volkswagen Foundation, one of the
first funding programmes dedicated to the documentation of endangered

People who knew Hans-Jürgen were aware that he was much more than just a
brilliant linguist: a man of many precious talents, he was a riveting
conversationalist that could make the whole party burst into laughter, a
caring friend that one could rely on in times of trouble and a devoted teacher
ready to read, correct and re-read the half-digested writings of the aspiring
students for an unlimited number of times. His friends and students – these
two groups intersect – remember his guitar playing and singing and his great
love of blues (documented by one of the biggest collections of blues records I
am aware of). He was a talented artist and had a great penchant for
caricatures, whose characters were often drawn with only a few strokes and
were still unmistakably identifiable and invariably invested with a fine sense
of irony. This mastery of mimicry was not limited to drawing: Hans-Jürgen was
able to impersonate practically anybody, imitating not only the accent and the
tone of voice but also the gestures, facial expressions and, last but not
least, the person’s ethos. Certainly related to these talents was his
brilliance in learning languages: he was perfectly fluent in about half a
dozen languages and was able to pronounce practically any sequence of voices
from any language as if he were a native speaker. None of these talents –
neither irony nor kindness, neither music nor languages – abandoned him during
the long time of his illness, even when he went through phases of pain and
weakness. This stoic attitude to life, endurance through and with humour, was
an essential part of him.

Hans-Jürgen Sasse is survived by his long-term collaborator and wife, Leila
Behrens, and a son from a previous marriage, Alexander. He is and will be

A longer obituary will appear in one of the following issues of Linguistic
Typology. A full list of Hans-Jürgen’s publications and a short in memoriam in
German can be found under:

Linguistic Field(s): Not Applicable

Page Updated: 16-Jun-2015