Remembering Ilse Lehiste

Ilse receiving one of her four honorary doctorates.
Ilse receiving one of her four honorary doctorates

We are deeply saddened by the passing of our esteemed colleague and friend, Ilse Lehiste, on December 25, 2010. This page is dedicated to the memory of Ilse. If you would like to contribute text or photos, please send them to

A memorial fund has been set up to honor Ilse. Donations can be made online or by sending your contribution to the:

Ilse Lehiste Memorial Fund (#313586)

The Ohio State University Foundation
Office of University Development
1480 West Lane Avenue
Columbus, OH, 43221

About Ilse

Ilse reading infront of class.

Ilse was born on January 31, 1922 in Tallinn, Estonia, but left Estonia as a refugee in 1944, fleeing the Soviet invasion of her homeland. She earned her first Ph.D., in Philology, from the University of Hamburg in 1948 and a second Ph.D., in Linguistics, from the University of Michigan in 1959. In 1963, Ilse joined the faculty at The Ohio State University. Ilse came to OSU from the University of Michigan, after receiving her Ph.D., and spending 1959-63 at the Communication Sciences Laboratory as Research Associate. At Ohio State, she divided her time between phonetics, historical linguistics, and administration, serving as Chair 1965-71, Acting Chair 1984-85, and again Chair 1985-87.  In fact, she was the Department's first Chair (1965-1971) when it was founded in 1965, after having spent two years in the Slavic Department. Professor Emeritus since 1987.

Ilse enjoyed a long and distinguished career.  She was the author, co-author or editor of 20 books, about 200 articles and over 100 reviews. Ilse was honored in many ways for her immense contributions to the field of linguistics. At The Ohio State University, she was awarded the title of Distinguished University Professor and received the University Distinguished Scholar Award, the university's highest recognition for scholarly achievement. She also held four honorary doctorates from Essex University, England (1977), the University of Lund, Sweden (1982), Tartu University, Estonia (1989), and The Ohio State University (1999). She was Foreign Member of the Finnish Academy of Sciences since 1998, and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences since 1990, and Foreign Member of the Estonian Academy of Sciences (2008).

Ilse's beautiful reading of lines from the "Maeg ic be me sylfum ..." poem, translated into Modern English, as "The Seafarer".

Faculty dinner, autumn 2009. Ilse plays the piano and tries to teach the linguistics faculty to sing
Ilse at the International Congress of Phonetic Sciences in Barcelona 2003.

Faculty dinner, autumn 2009. Ilse plays the piano and tries to teach the linguistics faculty to sing an Estonian folk song in Finnish. I don't think we impressed her very much with our Finnish.

Ilse at the International Congress of Phonetic Sciences, Barcelona 2003.

From The Rev. Dr. William E. Boys, Ph.D., OSU Linguistics 1979

I met Dr. Lehiste in the fall of 1967, when my wife and I had been evacuated from Biafra following that attempt at secession from Nigeria. Being a legal resident of Ohio, and being designated for language analysis of the Eket dialect of Eastern Nigeria at the time, it made eminent sense to enroll in Linguistics at Ohio State until the short (why do we always think wars will be short?) Biafran war was over. Dr. Lehiste honored us by accepting an invitation to lunch at our apartment on N. High St. As the war lingered on, eventually I was able to complete my Ph.D. at OSU, even though Nigeria's eventual decision to deny us return visas altered my career plans. But my memories of Dr. Lehiste's leadership of the department, and indeed all of the faculty at that time, remain one of the very most positive and influential events of my life.

Bill Boys

From Zheng-sheng Zhang

I took Prof. Lehiste's Language Contact seminar not long after I entered the dept. I think it was the winter of 82 or 83. I was impressed by the breath of knowledge that she possessed. I was very green then, knowing very little about linguistics, but Prof. Lehiste was very encouraging. It was then that I became interested in the Dungan people, a Chinese speaking community in Central Asia, surrounded by Turkic and Russian speakers. Not only has it been influenced by the Turkic and Russian languages, it also has been written with Arabic and Cyrillic scripts at various times. It was the only class I took with her. I would have liked to take more classes from her.

Zheng-sheng Zhang
San Diego State University

Funeral Service for Professor Ilse Lehiste

(Jan. 31, 1922 — Dec. 25, 2010)

Funeral Home, Dec. 30, 2010, 3 p.m.

Video: Ilse playing the piano (2008, Tartu, Estonia)

Jumal, Sul ligemal

"Bethany" (Nearer, my God, to thee), Lowell Mason, 1792-1872; sõnad:
Sarah Flower Adams, 1805-1848; tõlge: Karl Eduard Sööt, 1862-1950; Karl
Lampson, 1863-1934

  1. Jumal, Sul ligemal ihkab mu vaim! / Üles siit vaevaööst kannab mind aim. / Kasvab mu
    ahastus, ainult üks laul mu suus: / Jumal, Sul ligemal ihkab mu vaim!
  2. Kui tee ka vaevane, mis käia mul, / viib ta mind ometi ligemal Sul. / Inglid mind armsasti kutsuvad
    taevasse. / Jumal, Sul ligemal ihkab mu vaim!
  3. Ja kui siit muremaalt kutsud Sa mind / koju, kus igavest leian ma Sind, / taevasse elama lauluga tulen ma.
    / Jumal, Sul ligemal ihkab mu vaim!

Music performed by Mr. John Viinalass (voice, guitar)


Mr. Toivo Siitam, Chairman of the Estonian Committee in Columbus
Dr. Craige Roberts, Department of Linguistics, Ohio State University
Dr. Jaan Ross, Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre, Tallinn

Tähtede taga

Viis: Franz
Wilhelm Abt, 1819-1885; sõnad: Ida von Hahn, 1805-1880; tõlge: Mihkel Kampmann
(Kampmaa), 1867-1943

  1. Tähtede taga
    kord koidab sul taevas, / ootus ja lootus seal täide sul läeb! / Mis sa siin
    kandnud ja kannatand vaevas, / kõik seal sust igavest maha siis jääb.
  2. Tähtede taga –
    seal vajub kõik vale, / seal näed, mis tumedaks teinud on ilm. / Kurbuse järel
    sul naeratab pale, / õndsamas rõõmus siis särab su silm.
  3. Tähtede taga
    on sinu jaoks valmis / taevane lohutus, rõhutud rind! / Jumala inglite kiituse
    salmid / saatvad sind rahusse, väsinud hing.

Estonian national anthem

Viis: Fredrik
Pacius; sõnad Johann Voldemar Jannsen.

  1. Mu isamaa, mu
    õnn ja rõõm, / kui kaunis oled sa! / Ei leia mina iial teal / see suure, laia
    ilma peal, / mis mul nii armas oleks ka, / kui sa, mu isamaa!
  2. Sa oled mind
    ju sünnitand / ja üles kasvatand; / sind tänan mina alati / ja jään sull' truuiks
    surmani, / mul kõige armsam oled sa, / mu kallis isamaa!
  3. Su üle Jumal
    valvaku, / mu armas isamaa! / Ta olgu sinu kaitseja / ja võtku rohkest õnnista,
    /mis iial ette võtad sa, / mu kallis isamaa!

Eulogy by Jaan Ross, Professor, Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre

Dear friends and colleagues of Ilse Lehiste,

May I take this opportunity to say a few words about Ilse's contacts to her small homeland in Eastern Europe. Ilse escaped Estonia in 1944 when the Soviet troops were invading the country and the Nazi troops were stepping back. Altogether more than 5 per cent of the Estonian population seeked refuge at that time, mostly in Sweden and in Germany, because they had been subject to or witnessed atrocities commited by the Soviets during the first Soviet occupation in 1940 and 1941. Ilse's family spent a couple of years in German refugee camps in the late 1940s while Ilse managed to obtain a Ph.D. degree from the University of Hamburg in 1948. Next year Ilse and her mother were able to enter the United States by invitation from a local religious community. They initially settled in a small town south of Seattle in Washington. Ilse's first job was to become accompanist in a dance studio. In 1959, Ilse defended a second Ph.D. in linguistics at the University of Michigan. A few years later she was hired by the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at The Ohio State University, to become elected a professor at the same university in 1965. Ilse retired from OSU in 1987.

There were hardly any legal contacts possible between the Estonian diaspora and population in the native country during the years of the cold war. It was only in the 1960s when correspondence and rare visits were permitted to emerge between family members or friends separated by the ideological divide between the two world's superpowers. Ilse first visited Estonia in 1970 after the 2nd World War. Her step was not met with enthusiasm by some members of the diaspora, who considered visiting Estonia equivalent to recognizing its occupation by the Soviet Union (which the United States government never did).

My first encounter with Ilse occurred in early 1980 during one of her visits to Estonia. At that time, I was employed by a research group in phonetics at the Estonian Academy of Sciences. We managed to publish a festschrift in honor of Ilse when she became 60 years old in 1982. This enterprise was a bit tricky because contacts with members of the diaspora were not favored by authorities on that side of the iron curtain either. Professional connections between the Estonian linguists at home and abroad continued despite obstacles met by the both sides. As an established tradition, phoneticians of different countries convene for an international congress in every four years. The eleventh congress of phonetic sciences took place in Tallinn in 1987, organized by our research group and attracting more than 600 participants from all over the world. It could not have happened without Ilse's active support, as she was a member of the permanent international committee for congresses of phonetic sciences and had influence on decision-making in the committee.

Estonia became independent again in 1991. It was a poor country with little opportunities for its academics to purchase apparatus for research. In 1992, Ilse decided to donate a speech analysis workstation for the University of Tartu in Estonia. At the present time, possibilities for sound processing form an essential part of every personal computer. It was not the case 20 years ago. The workstation was manufactured by the Kay Elemetrics company in the United States and included special components of both hardware and software. In the same year, I took my first visit to the Ohio State University where I stayed for five months in the Department of Linguistics as a Fulbright scholar. The year 1992 marked the beginning of doing research with Ilse. She liked to stress that benefits of this cooperation stem from our different professional backgrounds, her being a linguist and me a musicologist. Our joint efforts resulted in a book published in 2001, entitled "Temporal structure of the Estonian runic songs". This book belongs to the total of 20 books that Ilse either wrote or edited, alone or with her colleagues in different countries.

For the last ten years, Ilse actively cooperated with the Institute of Estonian and General Linguistics at the University of Tartu. The results are seen in the form of three books on prosody of small Finno-Ugric languages, such as the Livonian, Erzya Mordvinian, and Meadow Mari. The linguists in Estonia will remember Ilse as a talented scholar who succeeded in gaining recognition all over the world and whose generous help and support to her colleagues at home contributed to the development of research and teaching in Estonia.

Eulogy by Craige Roberts, The Ohio State University Department of Linguistics

December 30, 2010
Eulogy for Ilse Lehiste

In 1988, as I prepared to come to OSU as a junior faculty member in the department of Linguistics, I was excited to meet Professor Ilse Lehiste, recently Emeritus, who would now be my colleague. Soon after my arrival, Ilse had a reception at her home for the three new faculty members in our department—Robert Levine, Donald Winford and me. I was surprised and pleased to find that this famous woman, whose book on Suprasegmentals had so impressed me as a graduate student, was beautiful and gracious. But she was also tough as nails: At the reception, I lingered late to speak with her a bit and tell her how much her book at influenced me. Ilse asked me many questions about my own work, on formal semantics, and in the end, informed me, very politely, that she had serious reservations about the empirical foundations of semantics. We started then a lively, always challenging conversation which extended over the years. The last time we met, about a week before her death, though she was quite ill Ilse was brightest and happiest when we talked about work, which we did—the state of my book, the state of her project with Estonian colleagues. I once heard Ilse toast another retiring colleague—I believe it was Arnold Zwicky—reminding us all "Once a linguist, always a linguist". She lived that to the end.

Ilse Lehiste was one of the most courageous and adventurous people I ever met, with a quick wit and razor sharp critical capacity, a passion for the truth, and an unfailingly bright and dignified manner. Like the rest of you here, I felt privileged to know her. As a young woman at the time of the Soviet invasion of Estonia in 1944, she left behind everything she knew and her bright future there, on half an hour's notice, to go with her parents to Germany. Abroad, she never indulged in self-pity or complaint. Without hesitation, she took up her two Ph.D.s, in languages which were not her native tongue, German and English. In her 30s and 40s, she took the New World by storm. In linguistics, she made extremely valuable contributions in several areas of scholarship. With unerring good taste and good judgment, she played the central role in building one of the finest Linguistics Departments in the United States, all the while behaving in only the most ethical manner with all she encountered. She was very strong, but also very generous, both as colleague and as teacher: One didn't ask Ilse her opinion if one didn't want to hear the truth. But there was never a hint of personal animosity. Even difficult truth was inevitably offered with courtesy, and where appropriate, with encouragement to persevere.

Ilse told me that one of the great influences on her development as a scholar was a course on the philosophy of science which she took as an undergraduate at the University of Tartu. From that course, she came away with firm convictions about the high bar that must be set for scholarship in science. In particular, she often told me that we must insist on rigorous methodology, gathering observable, measurable empirical evidence. She was already a polyglot, speaking Estonian, German, Russian, and Finnish, as well as Latin, at a young age, with others added subsequently. I think her interest in scientific method and her natural linguistic aptitude combined to lead her to the scientific study of language in modern linguistics.

The highlights of her career as a scientist are extremely impressive:

  • Doctor of Philology, University of Hamburg 1948
  • Ph.D. in linguistics, University of Michigan, 1959

In 1963 Ilse joined the Slavic Department and the new Division of Linguistics at OSU, where she became Chair in 1965. With her colleagues S-Y. Wang, Charles J. Fillmore, D. Terence Langendoen, and her long-time colleague and close friend Catherine Callaghan, Ilse shepherded the creation and development of a Linguistics Department, founded in 1967. She was its first Chair, a position she held until 1971, and again from 1984-1987, until her retirement in 1987. Under her direction, the new department grew and flourished.

She was the author, co-author or editor of:

  • 20 books,
  • approximately 200 articles in professional journals, and
  • over 100 reviews,
    many appearing in her emeritus years after 1987.

Her areas of research included:

  • Acoustic Phonetics
  • Prosody
  • Historical Linguistics and German philology
  • Language Contact
  • Estonian
  • Phonetics and Phonology
  • Serbocroatian Accentology

A few highlights from her long list of honors:

  • Foreign Member, Finnish Academy of Sciences
  • twice a Guggenheim fellow, l969, l975
  • Fellow, Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, l975-76
  • Fellow, AAAS, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Acoustical Society of America, and International Society of Phonetic Sciences
  • LSA President, 1980
  • recipient of four honorary doctorates, from:
  • Essex University, England (1977)
  • the University of Lund, Sweden (1982)
  • Tartu University, Estonia (1989)
  • The Ohio State University (1999)
  • and the inspiration for two Festschriften dedicated to her work.

But while these accomplishments in themselves are remarkable, one must understand the quality of Ilse's contributions to appreciate her position in our field. With her unflagging enthusiasm, great intellectual gifts, and courage, Ilse was a fearless explorer.

Mary Beckman on Ilse's contributions to acoustic phonetics:
She was one of a small handful of people in North America who were doing important foundational work on prosody at a time when most phonologists and many phoneticians were narrowly focused on uncovering consonants and vowel features. She stood out in this early area of research for her solid methodological contributions and thorough scholarship across multiple disciplines, for her early attention to prosody above the word and to the syntax-phonology interface, and for her critically important work on non-Germanic (and even non-IE) languages. More recently, she continued to shape the field in her work on rhythm in poetry and music and its relationship to rhythm in
prose, and in her generous mentoring of younger researchers with whom she collaborated.

Brian Joseph on Ilse's contributions to historical linguistics and the study of language contact:
In large part due to her own multilingualism, Ilse was fascinated throughout her lifetime by the connection between language contact and language change. She brought her knowledge about prosody to bear here, as she studied and wrote about the effects of contact on a language's prosodic system, both in the Baltic regions and in the Balkans. In her retirement, Ilse's long-standing interest in prosody led her to three important projects. The first was the phonetic investigation of metrical structure in orally produced poetry.

In her own words ("History of Phonetics at The Ohio State University", Ms. OSU):

The project deals with the rhythmic structure of poetry as compared to the rhythm of spoken language in general. A basic assumption in this project is the notion that the suprasegmental system of a language is crystallized in the metric structure of its traditional poetry. … To understand better the rhythm of spoken language, Lehiste proposes that one should look at the rhythmic structure of poetry developed in that language over the years; patterns that may be imperfectly realized in prose may be manifested in a more regular fashion in poetry." Under a grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation, she studied the phonetic realization of metrical structure in orally produced poetry in Finnish, Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Serbocroatian, Swedish (both Finland-Swedish and Stockholm Swedish), Icelandic, and Faroese. Crucially, in this project Professor Lehiste brought to bear both her expertise in prosody and suprasegmental phonetics, and her background on historical linguistics and language contact."

The study of the metric structure of poetry led further to a comparison between spoken and sung poetry.
In this important project, she collaborated with musicologist Dr. Jaan Ross, who is with us today. And most recently, she collaborated with colleagues at Tartu University, led by Professor Karl Pajusalu, on a series of monographs on the prosody of several Baltic Finnic languages which are threatened with extinction. Personally, Ilse was equally remarkable. She was very proud of her accomplishments. She used to say: "Who will wag the doggie's tail if the doggie doesn't do it?" But she was very modest about her generosity and kindness to others. Ilse often gave excellent advice about career and work. As late as this September, Ilse gave me extremely valuable comments on a proposal I was preparing. And she was wonderfully fun, always festive, happy to take on an adventure. I believe her last vacation was a visit last year to Alaska to view the Aurora Borealis.

Others have similar gratitude for her scholarship and generosity.

from Arnold Zwicky:
…a signal fact about [Ilse] as a public figure in linguistics: she looked for people whose cast of mind and ideas she admired and then worked hard, often behind the scenes, to use her influence to advance their careers; it was a kind of moral purpose for her.

From Sally Thomason, another former President of the LSA, on Language Log:
I'm not a fan of the over-used term "role model", but it's hard for me to avoid it in Ilse's case. But my admiration for her wasn't based on the role she played in my career, important as that was to me personally: it was more her rapid flow of ideas and her never-failing excitement about newly discovered linguistic facts. She showed me, more than anything, how much fun an academic life could be. For that, and for everything else I learned from her about linguistics, about languages, and about how to manage a career, I will always be grateful.
She also gave me the ideal recipe for a happy academic retirement: years ago, not long before she retired, she told me that what she wanted to do in retirement was everything she'd been doing all along, only a bit less of it (so that the constant time pressure would be reduced). And that, I believe, is what she did.

from Detmar Meurers:
What a loss! Even at the old age I got to know her, she was always so intellectually enthusiastic and dignified. And she was so energetic and excited about being able to contribute to the linguistic renaissance in Estonia. I still remember how she shared what it is like to live a life split across several home countries, to never have ONE home again - I often thought of that after returning to Germany. It is sad to know she is no longer with
us. We will definitely remember her.

from Ronelle Alexander, Dept. of Slavic Languages and Literatures, UC Berkeley:
Ilse…was assiduous in her scholarship, firm in her convictions, and utterly gracious with everyone. May she rest in peace, and continue to be an inspiration to us all.

Lenore Grenoble, dept. of Slavic languages and literature, U. Chicago:
Ilse always seemed immortal to me, one of the living legends of our
time. This is a sad moment, the passing of another giant in our field.

Michael S. Flier, Professor of Ukranian Philology, Harvard University:
I have fond memories of Ilse from the several times I saw her in Columbus and at the LSA. She was always most gracious and asked the best questions during Q&A. May she rest in peace.

Mary Louise Edwards, Prof. of Communications Sciences and Disorders, Syracuse University
Prof. Ilse Lehiste… was an amazing person and a wonderful phonetics professor, but just as importantly, she was a significant role model for her female students at a time when few women held positions of power and authority in academia.

from Peggy Dewan:
I had the honor of making Professor Lehiste's acquaintance when I was an undergraduate Linguistics student at Ohio State. To this day I still remember how beautiful her name sounded, particularly the way she herself pronounced it. I am sure she will be missed by many. Peggy Dewan (Margaret Wood, BA Linguistics 1975)
It is with great sadness that we bid farewell today to our friend and colleague Ilse Lehiste, but at the same time with a great sense of gratitude for the privilege of knowing her.

Craige Roberts, OSU

Blog Postings

Ilse Lehiste

Posted by Arnold Zwicky on the Language Log

News from Brian Joseph:our colleague and dear friend Ilse Lehiste, Professor Emeritus of Linguistics at Ohio State University, died on Christmas Day, of complications from pneumonia.

Ilse's accomplishments were enormous and formidable, in a wide range of areas of scholarship and research — instrumental phonetics, historical linguistics, prosody, poetics, Estonian studies, Serbo-Croatian studies, Germanic philology, for a start. (She was also a polyglot, picking up new languages throughout her life, building on the Estonian, German, and Russian of her young days.) She was duly showered with honors, including the presidency of the Linguistic Society of America.

A more formal death notice is in preparation for the LSA; I'll post it when it's finished. Memorial Symposium information, which has a lot of information. Inexplicably, she has no Wikipedia page.

Now, a few very personal remarks.

Ilse recruited me from Illinois for Ohio State in 1969 and oversaw rapid tenure for me and promotion to full professor. She immediately became close friends with me, my wife (Ann Daingerfield Zwicky), and our daughter (Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky), and later my partner (Jacques Transue). Later, with Elizabeth Traugott at Stanford, she helped to engineer a visiting professorship for me at Stanford, so that I divided my time between the two universities from 1985 through 1998 (when I moved to Stanford full-time). Along the way, Ilse spent time with me and my family almost every week, with some regular events, like Christmas Eve at her house — having a celebratory dinner, exchanging gifts, reading the Christmas story in Latin, and singing carols in English and German. Wonderful times, mixing the social and the academic.

I wish I'd gotten her to assemble a collection of her self-deprecating Estonian jokes (jokes about Estonians, not jokes in Estonian, though I'm sure she could tell them in several languages).

For a charming glimpse of Ilse, playing the piano in Tartu, Estonia, in 2008.

(Sadly, Brian's news came right on the heels of my posting on my blog about some deaths of 2010.)

December 27, 2010 @ 12:35 pm · Filed by Arnold Zwicky under Obituaries.



  1. Twitte​r Trackbacks for Ilse Lehiste #language [] on said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 2:18 pm

    […] Ilse Lehiste #language – view page – cached […]

  2. Bartek Plicht​a said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 4:16 pm

    Prof. ilse lehiste's publications sparked my interest in phonetics. Her early work on syllable duration, glides, formant transitions remains current today. Sadly, I never had a chance to meet her in person.

  3. Wolfgang U. Dressler said,

    December 28, 2010 @ 9:50 am

    Ilse was a great source of inspiration for me from the moment when she hired me ti Ohio State University in 1970. Later on it was a great pleasure for me that she followed my invitation to teach as a visiting professor for a semester at Vienna University as well as to participate in several of our Phonologietagungen.

  4. Oop s​aid,

    December 29, 2010 @ 12:31 pm

    I remember her holding a lecture in Tartu sometime in the middle of 1990s. Since then, I have been retelling many people the story about her kid calling radio persistently something like 'hafthl' - a clear evidence that the supposed simpleness of children's language skills is bogus. It was good to recall when in a Sumerian seminar, a German professor started talking about 'Lallwörter', as "all babies use simple words". Naturally, he had no kids himself.

  5. Ri​ck Wojcik said,

    December 29, 2010 @ 11:22 pm

    I just learned of her passing on Mike Geis's Facebook page. Ilse had a profound effect on all of us. My wife, Sue, and I met for the first time in her Estonian class at the Summer Institute at Ohio State in 1970. I share your regret about those Estonian jokes passing with her. Sue and I did actually get to hear them in Estonian, although she still had to explain them to us in English. She had such a great sense of humor, but you can see that in the clip of her playing the piano. It was always a pleasure to be around her, and she will definitely be missed.

  6. Jack Hoeksem​a said,

    December 30, 2010 @ 1:13 pm

    I can't say I heard any Estonian jokes, but once was the butt of Ilse's wit.
    Ilse was chair at OSU the year I was there as a visiting professor (1984-1985). I defended my dissertation during the Christmas break of 1984, and on returning to Columbus put a copy of the dissertation in her mailslot, with a note, signed: Dr Hoeksema. I received a thank-you note, signed Dr Dr Dr Dr Ilse Lehiste. Turned out, she had two PhDs as well as two honorary PhDs.

  7. Arnold Zwicky said,

    December 30, 2010 @ 10:38 pm

    The OSU department has set up a memorial site, here, regularly refreshed — and with an appeal to a memorial fund in her name.

Ilse Lehiste again

Arnold's news yesterday about Ilse Lehiste's passing was a sad coda to Christmas.  What a tremendous loss to the field of linguistics — Ilse's exuberant reactions to all things linguistic made her a joy to be around

It was from Ilse that I first heard of the three degrees of phonemic length in Estonian consonants and vowels, and about Halbdeutsch ("Half-German"), the German-Estonian mixture created by Estonians eager to achieve upward mobility during a period of German rule.   It was only half-German because the German rulers didn't want Estonians to learn German, so that Estonian German-learners had little access to full German.  The Germans, meanwhile, are said to have spoken to Estonians in a kind of Halbestnisch ("Half-Estonian").  But although Halbestnisch is entirely undocumented, as far as I know, Halbdeutsch was written down in poems and a few other forms before both half-languages died out well over a century ago.

Last year I was given (by Karl Pajusalu, one of her co-authors) what must have been one of Ilse's last books, the co-authored work Livonian Prosody (published in Helsinki by Suomalais-Ugrilainen Seura/Societe Finno-Ougrienne, 2008). Like all of Ilse's publications, it is full of interesting facts and cogent analysis.

I'm not a fan of the over-used term "role model", but it's hard for me to avoid it in Ilse's case.  She was responsible for the first invitation I ever received to give a plenary address at a conference (I wondered at the time if she'd made inviting a total nonentity a condition of her own agreement to give a plenary address at that conference, but I wasn't about to look the gift horse in the mouth); and shortly after I received tenure at the University of Pittsburgh, Ilse told me that she'd written a letter for my tenure case — the sort of letter, she said, that she wished someone had written for her when she came up for tenure.

But my admiration for her wasn't based on the role she played in my career, important as that was to me personally: it was more her rapid flow of ideas and her never-failing excitement about newly discovered linguistic facts.  She showed me, more than anything, how much fun an academic life could be.  For that, and for everything else I learned from her about linguistics, about languages, and about how to manage a career, I will always be grateful.

She also gave me the ideal recipe for a happy academic retirement: years ago, not long before she retired, she told me that what she wanted to do in retirement was everything she'd been doing all along, only a bit less of it (so that the constant time pressure  would be reduced).  And that, I believe, is what she did.  The YouTube link to Ilse at the piano that Arnold provided in his Language Log obituary yesterday shows the Ilse I knew, even though my direct experience was confined to her academic persona (I only knew about her musical persona at second hand): energetic, skillful, inspired — and clearly, having a lot of fun.  I will miss her greatly.

December 28, 2010 @ 10:53 am · Filed by Sally Thomason under Obituaries



  1. Arnold Zwicky said,

    December 28, 2010 @ 12:10 pm

    Nice to bring out Ilse's joy in her work and her ceaseless intellectual curiosity. Also a signal fact about her as a public figure in linguistics: she looked for people whose cast of mind and ideas she admired and then worked hard, often behind the scenes, to use her influence to advance their careers; it was a kind of moral purpose for her. Sally and I were both beneficiaries of her aid and encouragement.

  2. Reiner Wilhelms-Tricarico said,

    January 4, 2011 @ 10:20 am

    Thanks to who ever posted the video on youtube of Ilse playing the piano with so much fervour and fun. She was one of a kind and I am glad to have known her during my time at OSU. Such a friendly and funny person she was! The best thing I remember was how much time and effort she spent to help me write a small grant application. At the time I still had a quite lousy command of English; so she took it on to turn my written diatribes into real English. First I got the manuscript back with about as many red ink marks as there were words. After rewriting I got fewer remarks the second time, but still about one red mark per line. The grant proposal was eventually funded on first submission - thanks to her, but the true benefit for me was her amazing skill to detect and understand the origin of all my pitfalls and the 'false friends' I fell for while trying to write and speak English, and then explaining them to me with great generality. Thank you Ilse, you fixed my head! (Sorry, I tried my best, but I bet you would still find here plenty of abuses of English.)

    Reiner Wilhelms-Tricarico,

  3. Shari Speer said,

    February 1, 2011 @ 3:54 pm

    I did not know Ilse well personally, having arrived at OSU after she had become emeritus. However, her pioneering work on prosody in language comprehension inspired my initial interest in the area - one that has sustained my academic career to this day. My colleagues Paul Warren, Amy Schafer and I dedicated our most recent publication on prosody (to appear in the new journal, Laboratory Phonology) to Ilse's memory. It is a paper that took years to publish, as some good ones do, and Ilse was fond of the work, intermittently asking me after its progress. We could not have produced it without 'standing on her shoulders.'

    Shari Speer (and for Amy Schafer and Paul Warren)


From Friends

From Plinio Barbosa (Unicamp, Brazil)

"I met her the first time at Bourges, for a meeting on rhythm in 1992. We appreciated together a painting of St Stephen inside Bourges' splendorous cathedral. We both were astonished by the evocative strength of the red of the saint's tunic. Our field loses a lady. Plinio."

From Sara Garnes

Ilse Lehiste enabled me to have an academic career, and I will always be grateful to her for her instruction and support. I began my graduate studies in Autumn 1967 taking her Phonetics 600, Fillmore's 601, and Old High German with Prof. Fleischhaurer. How I loved it! Fascinating, demanding, fun, rewarding. I continued to take courses with her whenever possible, for all those same reasons. Runic Inscriptions, reading Old Norse, and then more phonetics, especially the seminar on suprasegmentals, offered just after she'd published the book with that title. The paper I wrote for that course on quantity in Icelandic eventually led to my dissertation, "Quantity in Icelandic: Production and Perception." She introduced me to Hreinn Beneditsson at Haaskoli Islands who facilitated my researck in Reykjavik. Getting the dissertation published, getting various appointments at OSU and at other universities nearby (for family reasons I had to stay near Columbus) and eventually getting a tenure-track appointment in English at OSU, for all, I am indebted to Ilse. It was not easy to leave behind my bibliography in phonetics, acoustics, and speech perception as I entered the new disciplines of rhetoric and composition, but Ilse's high standards always motivated and challenged me. I will be eternally grateful that I happened to follow my husband to Columbus and enroll in Linguistics at Ohio State and get to work with such a remarkable scholar and grand adviser.

So now, good-bye, Professor Lehiste. And thank you.

Sara Garnes
Associate Professor Emeritus
Department of English
The Ohio State University


Ilse at Interspeech-2002/ICSLP-2002

At Interspeech-2002/ICSLP-2002 when Prof. Lehiste received the ISCA Medal for her pioneering work in speech/language/linguistics (courtesy of John H.L. Hansen Department Head & Professor, Dept. of Electrical Engineering & Professor, School of Behavior and Brain Sciences (Speech and Hearing) Center for Robust Speech Systems, The University of Texas at Dallas)

Ilse at Interspeech-2002/ICSLP-2002 (2)

How sad to know that Ilse has left us all.

I had the pleasure of meeting Ilse at OSU and in conferences, and learned a great deal from her. The last time was 2004 where we attended both Speech Prosody at Nara and later traveled together to the first TAL (Tonal Aspects of Languages) at Beijing. She told me in the US "you are what you do", and that's why she only retired from her job, but never from her work. In that sense, I know Else has had a more fulfilling life than most people.

From Taipei,
Chiu-yu Tseng, Ph.D.
Research Fellow
Institute of Linguistics
Academia Sinica
Taipei, Taiwan

Hiroya  Fujisaki, Professor Emeritus, University of Tokyo

I am in a deep grief to learn of the passing of Ilse Lehiste, one of my closest and most respected friends of almost 40 years. Although we knew each other earlier through our publications, it was in 1972 at a conference in speech communication in Boston that we first exchanged words. Since then, I had the luck of having numerous occasions to learn from her. For instance, we both attended and exchanged our views at every ICPhS since the one in Leeds in 1975 until the most recent one in Saarbrücken in 2007. The followings are some of the highlights of our scholarly friendship.

At the ICPhS '79 in Copenhagen, I was invited to take part in a semi-plenary symposium organized by Ilse, and at the end of the congress we were both elected to serve in the Permanent Council for the Organization of ICPhSs. In 1980 I had the pleasure of inviting her to Japan and host her stay, together with Masayuki Sawashima, for almost two months as Visiting Professor at the University of Tokyo under the auspices of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science. It was a time of invaluable cooperation and pleasant personal exchanges with my family. During the summer of 1981 we also had a fruitful and enjoyable stay in Williamstown, Mass. for the SCAMP workshop organized by Arthur House, and in 1982 I had another chance of inviting her to Tokyo for a workshop (Working Group in Intonation), organized by myself together with the late Eva Gårding). At ICPhS '83 in Utrecht, Ilse kindly chaired my two plenary talks – one by myself, and another I gave on behalf of Ludmilla Chitovich who was not allowed to come. In 1994, Ilse gave a memorable keynote at the ICLP'94 held in Yokohama for which I served as honorary chair, and also was an invited speaker at the International Symposium on Prosody organized by myself as its satellite event. In 2004, we invited Ilse to give a keynote at the Speech Prosody Conference in Nara and at the TAL (Tonal Aspects of Languages) symposium held in Beijing to celebrate the 95th birthday of our common friend, the late Professor Zong-ji Wu at the Institute of Linguistics, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

At all these occasions and many others, I learned invaluable and unforgettable lessons from Ilse. Although Ilse is no more with us on earth, she will be long remembered by all her friends, colleagues and students. Let me conclude this personal note with a poem in Edda, translated into German, which Ilse taught me when we met in Saarbrücken during the summer of 2007.

Geschlecht stirbt,
Sippen sterben.
Du selbst stirbst wie sie.
Eins bleibt
das ewig lebt:
der Toten Tatenruhm.

Hiroya Fujisaki,
Professor Emeritus, the University of Tokyo
Former member, the Permanent Council for the Organization of ICPhSs

Linda Shockey (PhD 1973)

It is noticeable that virtually everyone who writes in tribute to Ilse mentions the effect she had on them personally as well as  intellectually: you wanted to engage with her ideas and learn from her, but you also wanted to be in her circle of friends. While her work in linguistics was her mainstay, she had a great capacity for warmth and enjoyment. She was always busy, but she also always had time to listen and give sound advice. That said, the advice wasn't always what you wanted to hear: she had exacting standards and did not refrain from applying them when she felt it necessary. It is unsurprising that she is known for the aphorism "A phonologist ignores phonetics at his own peril".

I join the others on these pages in emphasising her enormous influence on my career.  She recognised my interest in  phonetics,  encouraged it, and shaped its development while at the same time allowing me to grow in my own way. She also taught me by example that that hard work and self discipline are their own rewards. I failed to emulate her in this, but it was helpful to aspire to it.

In the 1960s and 70s, there weren't that many women who demonstrated that you could be dynamic, scholarly, successful, and human at the same time. Ilse Lehiste was a model to me and to many others. We are academics thanks to her, and we will miss her.

David O'Brock

Ilse with O'Brock children

Ilse was a wonderful friend of our family.  When my wife and I decided to move to Estonia, Ilse was kind enough to take me on as a student.  In seven weeks, she taught me where the Estonian language came from, the science of   the language, regaled me with jokes and taught me the Estonian National Anthem.

Whenever she came to Estonia, she always found time to spend a day with us. We have many lovely memories of showing her parts of Estonia which she had never seen before.

My children will always remember her kindness, humor, and the longest Estonian word "kirjanduslikkustatamatusegagi".

Ilse was a good cook, gracious hostess, and one could always get "black" bread at her house.

Riitta Välimaa-Blum

I will always remember Ilse as a great scholar and friend. I first knew her when I came to the Ohio State for my Ph.D. and then we kept on meeting at various conferences in different parts of the world. Once I was invited to her place with Joel Nevis and Ilse had prepared us an enormous, but delicious meal and that was the first time I got to taste of walnut liquor! I studied phonetics and Finnish with her and it was of course wonderful to work with 
someone who had done some of the foundational work in the field.

Sarah Hawkins

Ilse took the trouble to respond in great detail to my data on children's consonant durations when I was a PhD student. She didn't know me, and had no reason to help me other than the goodness of her heart. Like Linda Shockey, I can't say I was happy about everything she said about my work, but I was overwhelmed that she gave it any attention at all, and her comments were of course very valuable. That was almost 40 years ago. Since then, we greeted each other ever more warmly whenever we met at conferences, and I began to appreciate her complex, passionate personality and personal history as well as her pioneering intellectual accomplishments. That current students still refer to her early work on duration is a great tribute to her academic contribution. That I always remember Ilse whenever I take a break from working in my study to play a  few minutes on the piano, is a tribute to her sparklingly humourous manner. For that's what she told me - with a huge smile - that she did to get through all those interminable measurements: "...and then when I can't  bear it any longer, I run downstairs and play the piano."

Zinny Bond

Ilse at Tartu University

Ilse was one of the organizers of a workship dealing with the prosody of languages surrounding the Baltic Sea, held at Tartu University in the fall of 2008. Ilse was also one of the lead speakers. She was delighted to bring her scholarship back to Tartu. I'm attaching a picture of Ilse while she was speaking at the workshop and of the building at Tartu where the linguistics department is located. I think Ilse's picture shows how delighted she was with the event. i thought these pictures might be appropriate for Ilse's memorial page.

Tartu University

Gina Lee

Ilse is standing outside her office in Cunz Hall; 1985

Picture was taken in 1985; Ilse is standing outside her office in Cunz Hall

Osamu Fujimura

(from Columbus Dispatch)

I had the honor of being Ilse Lehiste's friend for many years. I knew about her work before I worked at MIT around 1960. While I was at Bell Labs, probably around 1980, I visited her home in Upper Arlington with Mark Liberman and Janet Pierrehumbert, my colleagues at that time. Ilse cooked a nice dinner for us and played her grand piano.

After I moved from Bell to Ohio State, I had many occasions to talk with her. She even participated regularly in my seminar at  the Department of Speech and Hearing Science. After I retired from OSU several years ago and worked mostly in Japan, we still maintained our friendship. When I visited Columbus earlier this year, she invited me to a restaurant in Upper Arlington and we had a very pleasant time together..

Before I attended the International Congress of Phonetic Sciences in Tallinn, I wanted to have a little exposure to Estonian. Ilse was very pleased by my interest in her native language and encouraged me by giving me a small textbook, which I read carefully and worked through all the exercises. I learned a lot about language through this experience and was very grateful for Ilse's support. While I never was her student and, in fact, never took any formal courses in linguistics, I think she greatly influenced my understanding of the nature of language.

She was always polite and gentle. I will never forget the kindness she showed me.

Osamu Fujimura
DSc. Professor Emeritus,
The Ohio State University

Mika Roinila

(from Columbus Dispatch)

With great respect and appreciation I remember Ilse from her association with the Finno-Ugric Studies Association of Canada. She will be greatly missed. 

Mika Roinila,
Mishawaka, Indiana