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  • Frantisek (Frank) Lichtenberk, 1945–2015:A Tribute
  • Andrew Pawley

Frantisek (Frank) Lichtenberk died in a train accident in Auckland on April 29, 2015, aged 69.1 During a career of forty years, he made outstanding contributions to descriptive and comparative-historical research on Oceanic languages and to linguistic theory. He was arguably the best all-round linguist to specialize in the indigenous languages of the Pacific. That’s a big call, because there have been many accomplished scholars working in this field over the last 150 years, but I can think of no other who has done so many different things quite so well: productive field work, writing prodigious grammars, compiling dictionaries, doing phonological and morphosyntactic reconstruction and dialect geography, drawing culture-historical inferences from lexical reconstructions, and seeking general principles of language structure and change. His papers and books are meticulously researched, rigorously argued, and beautifully constructed. He gained a world reputation for his writings on grammatical typology and language change, which drew heavily on examples from Oceanic languages. But such was his modesty that he was often underestimated by those not familiar with the full range of his accomplishments.

Frantisek Lichtenberk was born in Dubi, a small town in what is now the Czech Republic, on December 31, 1945. He had a younger brother, Jiri. Their father held a senior post in a government ministry. When Frantisek was in his early teens the family moved to Prague, where on the advice of his father he attended a technical high school. He was not much interested by what he learned there but he excelled in math, especially mental calculation. After high school, he completed two years of national military service, then got a job in the Vyzkumny ustav Telekominkci (VUT, or Research Institute of Telecommunications) in Prague. He was initially employed in the electrical section as a technician/draftsman, but after a few months was transferred to another section where his duties were to translate English and German technical and scientific journals into Czech.

At the VUT, Frank became good (ultimately lifelong) friends with a workmate, Robert Pechar, who recalls that they traveled together to Hamburg and to Italy, where (being on a tight budget) they slept on beaches and in city parks. In 1968 the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia, crushing the “Prague Spring.” The following year, Frank and Robert [End Page 597] were able to obtain exit permits to attend an electronics trade fair in Hanover, Germany, and just before Easter, 1969, they traveled to Germany and sought asylum. They stayed for six months in a refugee camp in Zirndorf, near Nuremberg, until they were granted asylum. While in the camp, they worked in an American Army barracks canteen. Frank already had a good reading knowledge of English, but by conversing with American soldiers his conversational English improved by leaps and bounds. He then moved to Cologne for a few months until he was able to migrate to Toronto, Canada. In Toronto, he got a job, possibly as a draftsman, working for a company that made cash registers.

In the early 1970s, Frank began a BA at the University of Toronto, and chose to major in linguistics, a field he had become interested in while working in Prague. Martin Joos (by then retired) had built a strong and eclectic Department of Linguistics at Toronto. Frank said that the teacher who most influenced him there was Henry Gleason, author of the celebrated textbook, An introduction to descriptive linguistics. A fellow student at Toronto, Jim Martin, recalls that Gleason encouraged students to work on non-Indo-European languages. Other faculty included Jack Chambers (teaching transformational-generative grammar), William Samarin (field methods, American structuralism), Peter Reich (stratificational grammar and psycholinguistics), Ed Burstynsky (phonology, Prague School), Hank Rogers (phonology), and Ron Wardhaugh (sociolinguistics). In 1975, Frank embarked on an MA in linguistics at Toronto by coursework, while employed as a teaching assistant.

The next year, with MA completed, he began a PhD at the University of Hawai‘i in Honolulu. The UH department was then one of the largest in the world, with many faculty specializing in research on languages of the Pacific Islands and Southeast Asia. I am not sure what...


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