The University of Chicago News Office
Dec. 27, 2002 Press Contact: Josh Schonwald
(773) 702-6421
jschonwa@uchicago.edu
 

Linguist Kostas Kazazis, 1934-2002

Kostas Kazazis, a linguist known for illuminating both the variation within individual languages such as Greek and the common features shared among the many languages of the Balkans, died of cardiac arrest on Monday, December 23, in his home in Chicago. Kazazis was respected as an expert on linguistic diversity and a builder of cultural bridges in an area where national and linguistic passions can run high, He was 68 years old.

At the University of Chicago, where he taught for 35 years, Kazazis was known for the vast range of European languages he mastered and the generosity with which he helped students learn them. His course list included “Afrikaans for Linguists,” “Albanian,” “Ancient Greek,” “Estonian,” “History of the English Language” (which he co-taught with his wife, English professor Christina von Nolcken), “Italian,” “Modern Greek” and “Rumanian.” University of Chicago Linguistics Department Chair Jerrold Sadock, who worked with Kazazis for over 30 years, remembered his “amazing facility with language--he spoke just about every European language in a remarkably colloquial way. He spoke Finland Swedish almost perfectly, and we would have conversations where I would speak Danish and he would speak Swedish.” One day, realizing his friend had somehow slipped into Danish, a language Sadock thought Kazazis did not know, he asked him, “Kostas, when did you learn Danish?” The answer came: “Last week.” Victor Friedman, a student of Kazazis who is now Chair of the Slavic Department and a member of the Linguistics Department, remembers the hours that Kazazis spent making tapes just for him to have a good model for pronunciation of various Balkan languages. When Friedman was in the hospital with a bleeding ulcer, Kazazis simply moved class to his bedside so he could keep learning.

Born July 15, 1934 in Athens, Kazazis was exposed to linguistic and cultural diversity from an early age. He attended high school in Greece but studied political science at the University of Lausanne, in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. He came to the United States and in 1959 earned an M.A., also in political science, from the University of Kansas, with “An inquiry into the problem of American recognition of the Soviet Government.” He began formal training in linguistics at Indiana University, where he earned a Ph.D. under F. W. Householder, Jr. in 1965 with a dissertation on “Some Balkan constructions corresponding to the Western European Infinitive.” There he coauthored a reference grammar of modern Greek along with Householder and Andreas Koutsoudas. He taught at Indiana and the University of Illinois before joining the University of Chicago Linguistics Department in 1965, where he taught for 35 years until his retirement in 2000.

Friedman said Kazazis did especially important work on diglossia, a phenomenon found in Greek and Arabic, among other languages, where people use a high-status, official dialect for formal purposes that is vastly different from the one they speak on the streets. In a famous article on “Sunday Greek,” based on a series of dialogues with an informant he called Socrates, Kazazis showed that everyday Greek speech includes a wide spectrum of forms, from learned to colloquial, even though the speaker may not realize it. He was also renowned for his insights into how languages influence each other: an article co-written with his student Joseph Pentheroudakis revealed an important grammatical construction shared by Greek and Albanian, and he produced a major study of Turkish elements in the Balkan languages.

Kazazis did more than just connect languages intellectually–he used this knowledge to connect people. Christina Kramer, a professor of Slavic and Balkan Languages and Linguistics at the University of Toronto, remembered a time Kazazis attended a conference on Macedonian in Toronto. “Macedonian-Greek relations are contentious,” she explained, and many members of the Macedonian Community in Toronto had left Greece during the Greek civil war and not been allowed to return. “A number of these people came to this conference, and were surprised that a Greek person was even going to be speaking. Kostas gave a talk about a group of Greek scholars who were critical of the Greek government on the Macedonian question. This was the first time that these people had heard any public statement that there was Greek intellectual opposition to the government–the first time they realized there were Greek people who would take up their cause. At the same time there were some Greek students who had come prepared to heckle the speakers, and Kostas spent the whole break period talking to them, explaining his position. It was an incredible human experience, seeing him give this paper to that audience, watching him use his linguistic knowledge, his experience and his integrity to bridge these two communities.”

Friedman said Kazazis would be remembered as a generous and open-minded scholar “who had great respect for all the ethnic minorities of Greece.” Pentheroudakis, a researcher at Microsoft's Natural Language Processing group, described him as “a steadfast, loving friend, whose wit and good cheer will be painfully missed.” His wife, Christina von Nolcken, remembered a man who could make people “laugh till they cried, whether in private or at a lecture. I heard him give papers in various countries and languages and he never used jargon; he was constantly thinking his stuff through until he could present it with extraordinary clarity, so it seemed simple.” She remembers that “even his dreams were a linguist’s dreams, and had he written his autobiography, it would have been a linguist’s autobiography.” On the morning of the day he died he was studying Japanese. He is survived by von Nolcken, two daughters, Marina and Silvia, and his first wife, Maria Jarlsdottir Enckell. The Department of Linguistics is planning a commemorative service for 2003 and a fund in his memory to support students.

 

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Last modified at 12:01 PM CST on Wednesday, January 22, 2003.

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