LINGUIST List 32.544

Fri Feb 12 2021

All: Prof. Em. Robbins Burling, 1926-2021

Editor for this issue: Everett Green <>

Date: 05-Feb-2021
From: Mark Post <>
Subject: Prof. Em. Robbins Burling, 1926-2021
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Robbins Burling, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and Linguistics at the University of Michigan, passed away peacefully on January 2, 2021, at the age of 94. A giant in the fields of anthropological linguistics, language evolution and language pedagogy, Burling was particularly known for his pioneering work in ethnography and linguistics of northeastern India, where he conducted his doctoral fieldwork and to where he returned for research visits until the latter years of his life. Burling’s work has played a seminal role in the development of Trans-Himalayan (Tibeto-Burman) linguistics, inspiring generations of scholars and producing some of the field’s formative works.

Rob’s early career saw the publication of several groundbreaking works in linguistics and anthropology, including A Garo Grammar (1961) – the first modern grammar of a northeast Indian language – a reconstruction of Proto-Bodo (in Language, 1959) – the first reconstruction of a Trans-Himalayan language at the subgroup level – a pioneering study of early child language acquisition in a minority language setting (in Word, 1959), an ethnographic monograph Rengsanggri: Family and Kinship in a Garo Village (1963), a popular textbook Hill Farms and Padi Fields: Life in Mainland Southeast Asia (1965, re-issued in 1992), and an influential reconstruction of Proto-Lolo-Burmese in 1967. Over the following five decades, Burling published more than 130 articles, chapters and reviews across the fields of social and cultural anthropology, descriptive and historical linguistics, language pedagogy and linguistic theory. In many of these works, he engaged in some of the major debates of his era, especially regarding the nature and origin of human language.

Throughout his career, Rob Burling’s work was marked by scholarly excellence, a solid empirical grounding in first-hand field data, and uncompromising methodological rigor. Yet all who knew Rob could not fail to also be impressed by the love he felt for the northeast Indian region, its people, and their languages, and this sense of love and joyful intimacy pervaded his work. His lifelong fascination with the Garo language culminated with a 2004 three-volume study The Language of the Modhupur Mandi (Garo), which uniquely presented a modern, comprehensive analysis of Garo grammar and lexicon in a highly accessible prose style. His fascination with language evolution culminated around the same time in a popular volume The Talking Ape: How Language Evolved (2005). And Rob’s skill as a teacher is nowhere better epitomized than by his 1992 introductory linguistics textbook Patterns of Language.

After retirement, Rob continued to travel and write (he made it to all seven continents). In 2016, he was honored with a Festschrift on the occasion of his 90th birthday at the 8th International conference of the North East Indian Linguistics Society (NEILS) – a conference Rob had attended faithfully since its inception in 2005. That same year he published a treatise on spelling, Spellbound, written from his lifetime perspective of being both a passionate and prolific writer, and yet a terrible speller.

Rob will be deeply missed by his family and friends around the world and across all walks of life, by the many students that he mentored, and by his many colleagues around the world.

Further reading: Language and Culture in Northeast India and Beyond: In Honor of Robbins Burling (available for free download at contains an Introduction which provides more information about Rob Burling’s life and work, as well as a chapter by James A. Matisoff which offers a detailed critical assessment of several of Rob’s contributions to Trans-Himalayan linguistics from a specialist’s perspective. It also contains several photographs, and a comprehensive bibliography of Burling’s work up to 2015.

Linguistic Field(s): Anthropological Linguistics
                            Historical Linguistics
                            Language Documentation

Subject Language(s): Bodo (boy)
                            Garo (grt)
Language Family(ies): Tibeto-Burman

Page Updated: 12-Feb-2021