Robert Blust Memorial Testimonials

Bob Blust passed away yesterday, cherished friend and colleague, sorely missed already. There are already a number of tributes to him and his work on social media, attesting the esteem in which he was/is held and the many lives he touched in so many ways.
He was actively engaged right to the end. The last email message I got from him (on Dec, 27) was about comparing different textbooks in historical linguistics and also humorously lamenting a review of something he had written which he believed might have come out better if the reviewer had actually opened the cover of what they reviewed. I just checked, and discovered that my U Hawai’i email account says he sent me 434 email messages, on all sorts of things, not a few of them about us trading really off-the-wall papers and claims about languages and their history and imaginative classifications. I shall very much miss his contributions to that corpus and his comments on the individual offerings, a very small part all that I am and will ever be sad to lose.

Dr. Lyle Campbell
UHM Department of Linguistics

A few days ago, I heard that Dr. Blust passed away. He was always kind and encouraging to me. All the people around me who graduated from UH do not forget his warmth and devotion to students.

Dr. Soyoung Kim
UHM Department of Linguistics

I miss Bob! I met him 52 years ago this month. He was a good friend in a lot of ways. We did each other favors all those years.

Many of those were of a very personal nature. I once went with him when the guy whom he hired to prepare his dissertation, was hassling him.

I acted as sort of a body-guard. No threats, intimidations or the
like. I just stood in the doorway to the office filling as much of the
space as I could,

while Bob negotiated with the typist. It went well. Soon Bob had
submitted the thesis and proceeded to ANU, PostDoc, Manus, and History.

I am proud to have helped him. Even happy to boast to you. But such
tales do not illuminate Bob’s achievements. My contacts were more
personal than professional.

As such are probably best left private.

Dr. Piet Lincoln
UHM Department of Linguistics

Bob Blust was my teacher, my mentor, and my friend.

Bob was, perhaps, a real life genius. The first day I met him, I mentioned that I studied Roviana and he immediately started producing Roviana words from memory. He had not prepared to remember Roviana words. He had looked through a Roviana dictionary at one point years before we met so that he could find retentions for his work in the Austronesian Comparative Dictionary. Bob had a memory for words unlike anyone else I have ever encountered. As another example of his feats of memory, Bob told me that he collected words through an interpreter for what would become the Thao dictionary. He did not use lexicography software to help him. When he went to the field with the interpreter he was able to remember which words he had collected and recognize words he had not collected yet.

Bob was an incredible teacher as well. For every paper I wrote, he would print the paper out and handmark it in red ink. Writing was my biggest weak point as a PhD student which meant that Bob would return my papers with lots of red ink and usually a letter which stated his comments and critiques. This was very hard labor on Bob’s part and absolutely essential to my development as an academic. My favorite class during my time at University of Hawaiʻi was one that Bob taught called Languages of Borneo. During this class, Bob shared his field notes from his own fieldwork in Borneo which was conducted in 1971. Each student was instructed to adopt the data sets of two languages and to describe the phonology and syntax of each. Bob encouraged students to fly as high as they could and reach their limits. For me, this meant turning in my two sketch grammars at the end of the semester for a combined 140 pages term paper. Bob read it so carefully that he even spotted, and marked in read ink, errors in glossing and references. His attention to detail was second to none and he set an example of precision that any careful scholar should strive for. His commitment to Austronesian languages was most clear in the sheer volume of his work. Bob was, perhaps, the most prolific scholar of Austronesian languages of all time.

Bob was an inspiring mentor. Not only because of his tireless work ethic, but also because of his passion and curiosity. Bob was sick for a long time and there were a few instances in which Bob thought the end was near. In one such instance he wasn’t sure if he would live for more than six weeks. I remember that a few days after learning this I discovered that a grammar of an Austronesian language had just been published. I mentioned it to Bob, but I thought he would be focused on the work he already had started since he might not have much time to finish it. To my surprise, he read the grammar because he was never tired of learning new things. Bob encouraged students to study little-described languages and he championed language conservation. He was also very compassionate and sensitive to injustice. One time, in class, Bob was moved to tears when he discussed the injustices that have been suffered by Native Americans.

Bob also became my friend. There were many weekends in the linguistic department where I would go in to find Bob wearing shorts and a baseball cap while working. We had many great conversations during these weekends in the office. These conversations typically began on a topic related to Austronesian linguistics but they often digressed into conversations about everything in life. Bob was an extremely caring person and was there to support me during difficult times.

Bob taught me so much, not just about Austronesian. I miss you Bob. Rest in peace.

Dr. Peter Schuelke
UHM Department of Linguistics

In 2008, I took the courage to contact Bob for the first time – as an anthropologist with no credentials in the field of linguistics but with a conference invitation to extend to him. I am thankful that he responded with interest, openness and eventually engaged in a broader cooperation on a scholar who had special significance for him as I learned only later.

That year, I was prepare to organize a conference on the Swiss linguist Renward Brandstetter (born 1860) whose upcoming 150th anniversary offered an occasion to revisit the work of this great scholar. I knew of Bob’s seminal contributions to Austronesian linguistics through my anthropological studies of Indonesia. And I wrote to him to ask whether he would be willing to deliver a paper or keynote address to the conference. To my surprise and excitement, he responded immediately and agreed to participate in the conference, should his health permit him to do so.

We met in person in 2010 at the conference, held in Lucerne, Switzerland where Brandstetter had spent most of his life. The group of participants was small – just a little more than a dozen of researchers who delivered papers from a range of disciplinary perspectives, yet we were able to cover the wide range of Brandstetter’s fields of interests: dialectology, literature, history, Germanic and not least Austronesian languages. On the latter he had written and published about 50 monographs and articles between 1890 and 1935.

Bob introduced Brandstetter’s seminal contributions to Austronesian linguistics, portraying him as the “first true systematizer” of this language group. And he made the audience aware of the personal link to Brandstetter in his intellectual biography: A book published in 1916, the only part of Brandstetter’s work translated into English, had brought him into the very field of Austronesian linguistics! In a footnote of the published paper, this reads as follows:

“…my own introduction to the field of Austronesian comparative linguistics when I was in my early twenties was through C.O. Blagden’s English translation of four of Brandstetter’s key essays. Because I was living in Hawaii and had just recently acquired spoken fluency in Bahasa Indonesia, reading these clearly organized, lucidly written and neatly interlocking essays struck me like a bolt of lightning: I was electrified with excitement and energized to learn more about the Austronesian world, and in particular its languages. From that beginning, which I owe to Brandstetter, I have built my career.”   (quoted from Blust, R. & J. Schneider, “A world of words. Revisiting the work of Renward Brandstetter (1860-1942) on Lucerne and Austronesia”, Wiesbaden  2012: 67, footnote 1).

Before we closed the conference, Bob agreed to collaborate with me on an edited volume of the papers. I felt that he was grateful that the idiosyncratic and pioneering scholarship of Brandstetter had been, for the first time ever, revisited by a multi-disciplinary scientific gathering. In the months that followed I worked with him on this project. We had frequent e-mail exchanges and I was deeply impressed by his dedication and tireless efforts in making comments and editorial suggestions on all the papers. When we met again in Bali in 2013 and took a walk on Sanur Beach – the last time I met him – the book on Brandstetter by systematizer” of Austronesian languages had been completed. I am deeply grateful for having had the opportunity to work with Bob.

Dr. Jürg Schneider
Associate Researcher, Institute of Social Anthropology
University of Berne, Switzerland

I’d like to talk about the time I first met Bob Blust, because that encounter already says a lot about the man. I think it was in December 1975.

Let me first give a little background. In the mid-seventies, Ingrid and I were training high school teachers in Papua New Guinea, and were surrounded by people speaking myriads of languages. Ever since my early teenage years in England I had been interested in the histories of languages, and had read books about linguistics I borrowed from the local public library, but I had had no formal linguistic training. I really wanted to study some of New Guinea’s languages, but had no idea where or how to begin. I knew that there were two kinds of language in PNG, Papuan and Austronesian, and I chose Austronesian. An encounter with Professor Stephen Wurm, who was on a field trip in PNG, led to an invitation to visit the Australian National University. So in December 1975 I made a week’s visit to the ANU in Canberra.

On arrival I was introduced to the department’s postdoctoral fellow, Dr Robert Blust, who was just two or three years older than me. When he understood my interest, he immediately took me under his academic wing, and set out to give me a one week crash course in Austronesian linguistics. I don’t remember much of the detail, but I know that he took a thoroughly professional approach to teaching me. He was patient and kind. He gave me very generously of his time. _We had lengthy discussions and he answered my numerous questions with great clarity. He gave me a reading list, so that I spent hours in the university library across the road from the Coombs building copying articles for later reading. Those hours were probably the only ones in which Bob got any of his other work done that week. We became good friends, and I recall having dinner with him and his wife Elaine and two young daughters, Karen and Lani, in their university apartment in the Canberra suburb of Garran.

When I look back, I am immensely grateful for the time that Bob gave me that week, because he helped kickstart my career as an Austronesian linguist. When I think about it, I realise that Bob selflessly invested that time in me without any certainty at all that anything would come of it. I might well have gone back to New Guinea and decided that, with my lack of training, studying local languages was too difficult and given up on it. But Bob did take the risk and did invest the time. Within just over a year I had done some fieldwork among my students and written my first paper on a group of Austronesian languages spoken along the coast of Papua New Guinea’s Sepik and Madang Provinces. The paper was modelled (poorly modelled, as it happens) on a paper that Andy Pawley had published on Austronesian languages in the Port Moresby area. This wouldn’t and couldn’t have happened without the impetus that Bob had given in Canberra.

The rest is history. I later wrote a PhD thesis at the ANU in Canberra on the history of the Austronesian languages of New Guinea and the western Solomons, and I’m still here. Bob and I met on numerous occasions at conferences in more cities than I can remember—one of them was Honolulu, another was Taipei, where I met Laura, and the last was Jena in Germany—and we kept in contact by email, so I was able to follow his life history almost to the end.

Towards the end of his fight with cancer, Bob was determined to finish off various pieces of work. One of these had been on his agenda since our encounter at the ANU in 1976. That year Bob had done three months fieldwork in the Admiralty islands of Papua New Guinea. He had used the data collected back then in numerous publications, but still had a mountain of unpublished data, so in 2021 he wrote up sketch grammars and historical phonologies of eight of the languages he had worked on in 1975 for publication, along with a 750-word lexicon for each language. These were published as a special issue of Language and Linguistics in Melanesia, the journal of the Linguistic Society of Papua New Guinea, and it happened that I helped with the final editing and preparation of the ms for publication. Bob was full of gratitude for this, which gave me the opportunity to tell him that I had far more reason to be grateful to him for what he had done for me during that visit to Canberra in the 1970s. This publication, incidentally, is a reflection of Bob’s personality: he was sick and exhausted when we were working on it, but he didn’t want to die without sharing what he had learned about their languages with the speakers he had worked with. Someone with less strength of character would have said, “Too bad. I don’t feel well enough to do this.”

I will remember Bob as a towering figure in Austronesian historical linguistics. We didn’t always agree academically, but Bob was punctilious about making sure that academic disagreement did not lead to breach of personal relationship, and I admire him for this, as well as for his astounding scholarship and his devotion to passing on that scholarship to others.

Thank you, Bob.
Dr. Malcolm Ross, Emeritus Professor
Australian National University

It’s been hard to put into words how sad I am about the passing of Bob Blust. So many aspects of his intense personality have left an indelible impression on me. Here are some that will inspire me for the rest of my life: his productivity and work ethic, unmatched by any other academic that I know; the breadth of his interests, rivaled only by the depth in which he pursued them; his candor and courage in the face of apparently imminent death for over a decade; his treatment of students as intellectual equals; his kindness to friends and strangers.
I first met Bob in 2016 when I was considering doing my PhD at UH Mānoa. When I timidly knocked on his door to introduce myself as a prospective student, he whipped around from his computer desk and faced me with a smile and his full attention. He would continue to do this every time I knocked on his door for the next five years. It always amazed me that a man whose phenomenal productivity formed the very basis of his identity would never hesitate to put aside his work and give his undivided attention to anyone who wished to talk. That first time I met him, he warned me that he had been battling cancer for several years, and that I shouldn’t rely on him being there for my whole PhD.
When I enrolled, I therefore front-loaded all of his classes into my first year or two, convinced that this man would keel over any day – but he didn’t! Unbelievably, he continued to churn out research and refused to miss any more teaching than strictly necessary. He informed us that he would be absent for one day in order to begin infusions of Rituxan, and that as long as it didn’t kill him on the spot, he intended to come right back and carry on as usual. He indeed survived those treatments, which extended his life by several years. And he never missed a class after that, no matter how sick he was feeling.
One thing I am grateful for is Bob’s letters. Rather than just glancing at students’ papers and sticking an “A” or “B” at the top, Bob wrote a response letter – which must have added up to hundreds of letters a year in routine grading. I have saved all of his letters to me, because even though he was doing this for every single one of his students, they always made me feel special. These were peer reviews which marked me as a scholar whose work was worth engaging with, even if that work was just a glorified book report or basic summary of data. He recognized that big-shots don’t always get it right, and that a student’s reconsideration of basic assumptions or evaluation of crackpot ideas can bring our field a little bit closer to understanding greater truths – as long as we rigorously stick to where the evidence leads us. For Bob, teaching and research clearly went hand-in-hand: students could introduce teachers to perspectives they hadn’t previously considered, and teachers could give students the confidence to question what they’d learned and become true experts in their own right. If I’m lucky enough to become a professor, I will strive (in my own way, because Bob’s style was admittedly old-fashioned) to make all my students feel as respected as he made me feel.
Bob was more than just the greatest Austronesianist of our time, the man who carved the keystone in our understanding of the world’s largest language family. He was an imperfect and brilliant person, a passionate teacher, a rigorous researcher, and a caring friend. He was a humanist who constantly expressed his awe in our species’ abilities at our peak and his frustrations at our individual and collective weaknesses. I wish I could talk to him just once more about rainbows and dragons and Proto-Polynesian. I already miss him terribly.
Dr. Thomas Kettig, Adjunct Assistant Professor
Department of Linguistics & Communication Disorders
Queens College, City University of New York

The archaic features of Formosan languages were duly recognized by Naoyoshi Ogawa, Isidore Dyen, Otto Dahl, Stanley Starosta, Robert Blust, John Wolff, and Malcolm Ross. Formosan languages thus became indispensable for the reconstruction of Proto-Austronesian phonology and morphosyntax. It was Blust (1977, 1985, 1999) who first postulated that Formosan languages are the most diverse among the entire Austronesian language family. It is now generally believed that Taiwan was the Austronesian homeland, not only by linguists, but also archaeologists, such as Peter Bellwood, and geneticists, such as Diamond (2000), and they lent further support to the “Formosan homeland” hypothesis. It is clear that his impact is cross-disciplinary.

Blust and I were classmates taking several courses together when we were doing the PhD program at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, 1967-70, including the Comparative Method, Indo-European Comparative Studies, and Proto-Austronesian Studies. Blust was already very well versed in all these subjects.

Both Blust and Shigeru Tsuchida have had great interest in Formosan languages, and we all have become lifetime friends. When I coordinated the “Symposium of Austronesian Studies Relating to Taiwan” at the Academia Sinica in Taipei in 1992, I invited both of them as participants, and when I coordinated the Eighth International Conference on Austronesian Linguistics held in Taipei in 1997, I invited Blust to be one of the three keynote speakers. In 1994, I invited Blust to spend a year at the Academia Sinica as a Visiting Scholar, funded by the National Science Council, Taiwan. He did some field work on Thao, Kavalan, and Pazih, ending up publishing the Thao Dictionary (Blust 2003) and several papers on these languages.

We often exchanged our publications. He often gave me critical but very helpful comments when I sent him my manuscripts. When I revisited UHM, usually to attend a conference, he was always very kind to me, inviting me to dinner or lunch.

My colleagues and I have spent two years translating his monumental work, The Austronesian Languages (2013) into Chinese. It will come out in print at Linking Publishing Company in Taipei in a few months. It is a pity that Blust did not live long enough to see its publication.

I’m indebted to Blust for advocating the great linguistic value of Formosan languages. Study of Formosan languages is my lifetime engagement, and my work has been recognized in Taiwan with awards of great honor, including the Presidential Science Prize, and as an honorable member of the Linguistic Society of America. Blust played a crucial role in my career.

All of us in Austronesian studies have great respect for Blust’s scholarship, personality, and great academic contributions. I’ll miss him; he was a great friend and colleague.
Dr. Paul Jen-kuei Li, Research Fellow
Institute of Linguistics
Academia Sinica

Bob Blust was clearly a brilliant scholar. And yet if that was all that he was, this piece would have been much easier to write, because I would not have to grapple with these complex emotions of losing more than just some person I looked up to. Dr Blust was much more than that.

In 2010, when I first began grad school in Hawai‘i, Dr Blust must have been the first face I saw in the department, unsurprisingly, given how much he was around the department, and how much he gave to it in his lifetime. In many ways, Dr Blust was the department. I was nervous about settling in, but he gave me the warmest welcome, and I somehow knew that everything was going to be okay.

I took just about every class that Dr Blust offered, given in part my interest in Austronesian languages as well as my fascination with being taught by a human encyclopaedia. He had high expectations of us and would not stand for nonsense. My classmate and I remember him chiding her for asking a language consultant from Papua New Guinea how to say ‘cow’ in the language we were working on for field methods, because “cows are not indigenous to the place!” We had to stifle a laugh, but Dr Blust was very serious about it. This is not to say that he was not encouraging, because he was supportive through and through. My working paper that I developed under Dr Blust examined the individual lines of evidence (linguistics, archaeology, genetics) for and against the Out-of-Taiwan hypothesis in establishing the Austronesian homeland. He was cautious, because working papers that did not utilize primary linguistic evidence were not the norm, but seeing how badly I wanted to pursue the topic, he made sure that I had the help and support of his colleagues in anthropology and biology, and provided a valuable sounding board, while I slowly pieced together this dream paper I had in mind. He did not necessarily have a reputation for patience, but when it came to helping us realize the work that we wanted to do, he was a very different person.

He devoted his time and energy to us in a way that many people didn’t. My place was a rental just a few houses from his, along Metcalf. I cannot count the number of times I bumped into him, as he was taking out the evening’s trash and I was on the way home from campus. The duration of our impromptu meetings ranged from five minutes, when we conversed about the rabbits in his home or the piano, which his daughter, Jasmine, played beautifully, to an hour, when he discussed with me issues concerning Austronesian languages, conundrums in comparative linguistics, and where I had gone so wrong in my problem sets. Often times, dusk would arrive, the streetlights would come on, and we would realize that time had passed so quickly. These moments with Dr Blust, painful as they are at his loss, stay etched in my treasured memories. Some grief never go away, and this is one of them.
Dr. Nala Lee, Assistant Professor
English Language & Literature Department
National University of Singapore