Remembering Dr. Robert Longacre (1922-2014)

I’ve had scholarly adventures. I studied language problems as a way to serve people. Getting to know a language and discovering its discourse structure, developing confidence, making friends… It’s been an academic life, but never in a vacuum.

-Dr. Robert E. Longacre

(May 2014) SIL remembers Dr. Robert E. Longacre, whose work in linguistics spanned more than half a century.

We grieve the loss of our esteemed colleague, Dr. Robert Longacre, who will be fondly remembered as a man with a brilliant mind and a relentless, cheerful wit. SIL’s service to the world’s ethnolinguistic communities has been significantly impacted by his expertise in linguistics and translation. Along with my SIL colleagues, I want to express our condolences to his family and friends.
 -Freddy Boswell, Executive Director of SIL International

A 2003 resolution from SIL’s board of directors commended Longacre for his extensive contributions, stating in part, “Thousands of field linguists have learned to deal with the mysteries of the languages they studied through Bob's teaching and textbooks on grammar, syntax and discourse.”

Longacre earned a PhD in linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied under prominent linguists Zellig Harris and Henry Hoenigswald. In SIL, he worked alongside Dr. Kenneth L. Pike, long-time President of SIL, whom he considered a teacher and role model. Though he delved deeply into many theoretical studies, his work was not an exercise in abstract analysis, but motivated by the needs of colleagues involved in the day-to-day realities of pioneering language development work.

Best known for his research and publications in discourse analysis (text linguistics), Longacre’s interest in language began with the Latin course he took as a high school freshman. As a college student, he heard Eugene Nida speak about linguistics and decided to participate in SIL’s summer training program in Norman, Oklahoma, where he was introduced to methods of linguistic analysis and self-directed language learning.  Due to a severe stuttering problem (finally overcome through a painful experimental therapy in the 1950s), he was drawn to work that would involve writing rather than public speaking, little knowing that his career would include delivering lectures to hundreds of students and professional linguists.

Longacre hikes the mountains of Oaxaca, home to the Trique-speaking community; at a village gathering; at Georgetown University with Georgetown linguistics professor Father Walter Cook (at podium) and Bill Merrifield, Ken Pike and Robert Longacre of SIL

Soon after their marriage in 1946, Robert and Gwen Longacre began serving with SIL in Mexico. In early 1947 they settled in a remote village in the mountains of Oaxaca State to begin research and language development in a Trique-speaking community. Living in the village provided an opportunity for the Longacres to observe and record some of the unique cultural practices of the region before the construction of a highway which would lead to greater contact with the wider world and bring changes to the community’s way of life. Robert Longacre devoted his time in the village to learning and analyzing the language and worked in partnership with the community to produce several pieces of vernacular literature, including the translation of the New Testament into Trique.

Longacre was intrigued by the unique characteristics of the Trique language, including its five distinct levels of tone. He became the first to document this complex type of tonal system. His 1957 PhD dissertation, a proposed reconstruction of Proto-Mixtecan (the ancient and unrecorded language from which Trique and its sister languages evolved), was the first extensive linguistic study to propose the earliest roots of Mesoamerican languages. This was one of several SIL studies which helped to establish the Oto-Manguean language family as being comparable in time depth to Proto-Indo-European. In carrying out this research, Longacre was fulfilling one of the dreams of SIL’s founder, William Cameron Townsend, who hoped to see SIL linguists complete comparative studies of the languages of Mexico and Central America in order to map out the relationships of these languages. A generation of comparative linguists built on this foundation.

Longacre’s work with Trique revealed his unique giftedness for discovering the intricacies of language, leading to a lengthy career of training and leadership roles within SIL and beyond, including:

  • International Linguistics Consultant
  • Instructor for countless SIL training courses and workshops
  • Founder and editor of the Journal of Translation and Textlinguistics
  • Faculty member at several universities, including the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA) for over twenty years (1972-1993)
  • Mentor for MA and PhD students as a member of many thesis and dissertation committees
  • President of the Linguistic Association of Canada and the United States (LACUS) (1994-1995)

Longacre was named Professor Emeritus after his retirement from UTA and received an award for Distinguished Career Achievement. He was honored by LACUS in 2007.

The Longacre family traveled widely. In addition to Mexico and their home country of the United States, Dr. Longacre’s work as a consultant and instructor took them to countries in Central and South America, Africa, Asia and the Pacific. Ever enthusiastic about the unique qualities of the languages and cultures he encountered, Longacre’s input and encouragement was the catalyst for the publication of countless papers by colleagues and friends.

Colleagues Norris McKinney of SIL, Peter Ladefoged of UCLA and Longacre at a gathering of friends; even after retirement, Longacre continued his research and writing.

Author or co-author of more than two hundred books and articles, Longacre’s The Grammar of Discourse (Springer, 1996) has long been used as a graduate-level linguistics textbook. Even after he formally retired from SIL in 1994, he continued to make contributions to his field, collaborating on his last two books with long-time colleagues. Holistic Discourse Analysis, co-authored with Dr. Shin-Ja Hwang, was published by SIL in 2012. Understanding Hebrew Verb Forms: Distribution and Function across Genres, co-authored with Dr. Andrew Bowling, will soon be released. Many of his unpublished or otherwise hard-to-find articles are included in The Development of Textlinguistics in the Writings of Robert Longacre. A number of respected linguists contributed to the 1992 festschrift Language in context: Essays for Robert E. Longacre.

Preceded in death by Gwen, his wife of sixty-three years, Dr. Longacre is survived by his four children, twelve grandchildren and seventeen great-grandchildren.

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