Geoffrey Nunberg, RIP.

I am sad to learn of the death of Geoff Nunberg, a fine linguist and a longtime friend of the Hattery. I don’t know any details yet, but you can read Mark Liberman’s memorial Log post for a bit more (he says “after a long illness,” so apparently it wasn’t coronavirus, which is the first thing one thinks of these days).

Update. The NY Times has published a good obit by Richard Sandomir; it begins:

Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist whose elegant essays and books explained to a general audience how English has adapted to changes in politics, popular culture and technology, died on Aug. 11 at his home in San Francisco. He was 75.

Kathleen Miller, his wife, said the cause was glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer.

Mr. Nunberg’s fascination with the way people communicate found expression in acclaimed books like “Going Nucular: Language, Politics, and Culture in Confrontational Times” (2001); in scholarly work in areas like the relationship between written and spoken language; and in lexicography — he was chairman of the usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary.

He was one of a small group of linguists, among them Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker, renowned beyond their academic universes.

“I always saw him as the paragon of public intellectualism,” the linguist Ben Zimmer, who writes a column on language for The Wall Street Journal, wrote in an email. “He was a lucid, effective communicator about thorny linguistic issues for many decades.”


  1. I’m sorry. I see that for several years I’ve been confusing him with George Lakoff, whose book on metaphor wasn’t half as useful as I’d hoped; they both worked at Berkeley. Maybe I’ll try his (Nunberg’s) punctuation book. God knows, I need one.

  2. Trond Engen says

    Sad to hear. Geoffrey Nunberg managed to combine original insight with clear writing and a genuine interest in communicating. It’s no coincidence that he was a friend of the Hattery.

    It’s fitting that his memorial post turns into a discussion of pragmatics. “Long time illness” usually means cancer, and so it was, according to his old friend Larry Horn in the Log comment thread.

  3. Ah, I figured as much.

  4. J.W. Brewer says

    I think Larry Horn’s comment is consistent with cancer being the cause of death but doesn’t quite force that implicature (Nunberg could have, like, it is implied, Larry, previously had cancer and survived that particular adventure).

    This made me realize something I knew but easily forget, namely that my own teachers, if still alive, are rather elderly. Larry (trying to reconcile the “third grade in 1953” point with other stuff in his CV) would have been around 40 years old in the fall of 1984 when he was the professor in the first formal linguistics class I ever took. But 1984 is getting to be rather a while ago now, and those of us who were 19-year-old students in that class are none too youthful ourselves.

  5. John Cowan says

    Larry Horn’s book The Natural History of Negation is why Lojban’s negation system is the way it is.

  6. Wikipedia ends its article on him with:

    “His means of studying the problem is utterly fresh: take a word, and the attitudes behind it and see where they came from and what they might say about us.”

    It’s an admirable approach that I thoroughly agree with, but is it utterly fresh? Maybe to someone who isn’t a linguist or lexicographer….

  7. Oh no! I’m so sorry to hear that.

  8. Yes, it was a real shock.

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