Frank Lichtenberk (Frantisek Lichtenberk) passed away on Wednesday 29th April 2015 tragically struck by a train near his home in Auckland, New Zealand.
He was an Associate Professor of linguistics in the Department of Applied Language Studies and Linguistics, at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. He had worked there since completing a PhD under the guidance of Andrew Pawley and George Grace at the University of Hawai’i on the Manam language (an Austronesian language spoken on New Guinea). His 634-page “Grammar of Manam” was published in 1983 as an Oceanic Linguistics Special Publication and has since been cited by over 200 sources.
In 2008, he completed two major works on the To’abaita language, another Austronesian language, spoken in the Solomon Islands; namely a 395-page dictionary published by Pacific Linguistics, and an extremely detailed grammar of over 1300 pages published by the renowned Walter de Gruyter. These works took over 10 years of meticulous research and analysis to complete. They represent Frank’s incredible linguistic insight, knowledge and dedication. Frank was among the best Oceanic linguists in the world, appreciated by everyone in the field, and an inspiration to both old hands and newcomer students. He was always present at the Oceanic linguistics conferences and his absence will be felt for years to come.
Aside from his solid field linguistics work, Frank made important contributions to the field of typology. He wrote on topics such as reflexives, possessives, reciprocals, relational classifiers, individual hierarchies and grammaticalization. Testimony to Frank’s incredible talent and wide recognition, his 1991 paper on grammaticalization published in the prestigious journal “Language”, was among the top 25 most cited and among the 10 most downloaded papers from that journal between 1925 and 2000. In 2011, he was also asked to teach a course on reciprocal constructions at the American Linguistic Institute which is an extremely rare achievement; only top linguists in their areas are invited to take part in these intensive summer schools.
Complementing his impressive linguistics research are Frank’s qualities as a supervisor and teacher. I had the good fortune to know Frank for over 15 years. He first taught me as an undergraduate student in the classic LING101 course “Introduction to Linguistics”, and right through to graduate school, and eventually supervised my Masters Thesis on the Middle Voice and my PhD on spoken grammar (jointly with Jim Miller). Frank would take the time to meet with me weekly (!) and pore over my many drafts, carefully dissecting what were – to my embarrassment – sometimes rather poorly thought-out ideas. Still, he always nudged me ever so gently to find my way. While supervising my project on the Middle Voice in Romanian (my mother tongue, but a language he previously did not have much to do with), he became so well acquainted with the language that he would often correct my own Romanian examples. Frank took the time to come to all my graduations, to meet my family and some of my friends. In 2006, he even offered me his own office for an entire year while he was on sabbatical leave as there was a shortage of office space for PhD students in our department. From talking to some of his past students, I learned that he was as dedicated to everyone he advised, that was just Frank’s way.
Aside from his passion for language, Frank was an avid and experienced runner – he took part in several marathons, with his best time around a crazy 2h 45 min. He once told me that he seldom went to any conference without his running shoes. Running gave him the freedom to think uninterrupted and the rhythm to completely immerse himself in deep analysis. It is perhaps not a surprise that I myself took up long-distance running while studying under his guidance (though it turns out that running alone is not quite enough to produce amazing quality linguistics). This clarity of mind is reflected in his work and general approach to any problem-solving task.
Frank was a reserved and private person. It took me many years to learn anything at all about his life and in talking to many people who knew him, I often heard this same feeling echoed. Despite keeping to himself and being incredibly modest and even shy, he never missed any social gatherings in the department. He was a brilliant listener and a compassionate person. Frank had the ability to inspire a rock-like solid confidence in us, his students, which surprisingly, he sometimes lacked about himself and his own work. When a number of us tried to propose him for a Teaching Excellent Award for Supervision in 2007, he was much too modest to complete the process (he was required to submit a statement alongside our testimonies) saying he did not really know much about being a good supervisor. We had to content with taking him out for a brunch instead which we thoroughly enjoyed.
We are all still in shock to think that Frank will no longer be walking down the Auckland University hallways and attending every morning tea alongside his colleagues, with his trusted single-cup plunger. The devastating void he leaves behind will be felt by so many people around the world!
Our thoughts are with his family and friends all around the world at this difficult time.
We will miss you Frank!