Obituary – Frank Lichtenberk (1945-2015)

Frank Lichtenberk (Frantisek LichtenberFrank2008k) 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!


19 thoughts on “Obituary – Frank Lichtenberk (1945-2015)

  1. I am Fred Saeni from the Solomon Islands. I learnt only today with great sadness the sudden death of Dr Frank Lichtenberk. Frank came to my village and worked with my father and uncles over 10 years to complete the Toabaita Dictionary. I traveled to his residence in Auckland in 2001 to help him in the process of polishing and finishing up.
    He was such a great person admired and valued by all in my community. I will pass on this information to my people in the village in North Malaita who have also not known about this. My deepest condolences to Franks families.

  2. I have readen some article of Frank that were memorble and very useful. he gave consultation about my project remote but I remember him evry day and miss him…

  3. I have been a P/T teacher for years around Auckland – across the levels, Primary and Secondary , some Tertiary.
    -mainly in the subjects English and ESOL.

    I have always been aware [ loosely ?] of the public function of Universities-
    that is the right of the public to contact Uni .staff and ask them questions ?

    This is how I met Frank .

    He was IMMEASURABLY helpful to me as I had less linguistics knowledge than he did .
    I was mainly taken by the fact that he had no problem whatsoever in my perhaps ‘gaucheness’ in contacting him ‘out of the blue.’

    Just too bad – huge loss

  4. The students of Professor Krifka’s Toqabaqita grammar class send their sincerest condolences to Professor Lichtenberk’s family, friends and colleagues. We are grateful for his extraordinary work on the language and we were looking forward to meeting him in person.

  5. I received the bad news just yesterday, after wondering for a couple of weeks why Frank did not reply to my e-mails. I am very saddened by this loss. I met Frank only once, in 2013, when I gave talks in Auckland. But then I decided to give a seminar based on his wonderful grammar of Toqabaqita, at Humboldt Universität in Berlin. He was excited when he heared about that, and it got even bette when there was an opportunity that he could come to Berlin for a few of days early in July — to the excitement of my students. I informed him about what we were doing in the seminar, he was excited about our plan to do a substantial Wikipedia entry on Toqabaqita and a short description of the grammar based on his book. He was about to send me digitized materials, in his last e-mail dating from April 22.

  6. Yes, such a shock. Still grieving. I did my MA with Frank in Toronto and we were two of the students there that shared an appreciation of Gleason — who influenced us in different ways (for Frank, his field work, and for me, discourse analysis and metatheory). We roomed together in Hawaii at the LSA Institute in 1977 there, and visited back and forth across the Tasman on occasion thereafter. I think his modesty stemmed from the meticulous care he took with description and his openness to ideas. I will miss knowing he is there in Auckland or the field, recalling his sense of humour, commitment to the discipline, ability to listen, and inspirational penchant for running. Quite a model for us all.

  7. I am deeply saddened by this news. Frank taught me as an undergraduate in the early 1980s and I remember his as one of the most meticulous and organised lecturers, and one who conveyed a real passion for his subject. Later as a PhD student he always helped me out with advice on Pacific languages and linguistics. Over the last 20 years I enjoyed meeting up with him in the tea room whenever I was visiting the Department. I will miss those meetings.

  8. Thank you for posting this. I was extremely sad to hear about Frank’s death. While I did not know him very well compared to you, I saw him as a wonderful role model, in particular his generous and humble attitude towards everyone around him. When I invited him as a keynote speaker to a conference a couple of years ago, he was honestly surprised to be asked and concerned about whether his talk would be good enough (and of course it was!) And he was always so encouraging to me about my own work. He will be greatly missed.

  9. Thanks Andreea for this excellent piece. I am very sad to hear this news and I am sure our Oceanic colleagues are as well. Frank was one of my PhD examiners and I felt humbled by the insightful report he wrote about my PhD. I will definitely miss his warm presence at Oceanic/Austronesian conferences and his great writing.

    • Thank you Sebastian! How right you are … there is so much still to be said about Frank, and I remember new things every day…

  10. Many of us here in Toronto are also devastated by this news and moved by Andreea’s touching tribute to Frank. People may not know about this part of his life, but Frank came to Toronto in 1968, and started his university career here taking evening courses, while he worked part-time at various jobs. In the early 70’s, he won a grant that enabled him undertake full-time studies in linguistics. Frank later followed three other Toronto M.A. students who had gone on to study in Hawaii, where his career in Austronesian languages developed. Those who remember him here (e.g. Jack Chambers), and those who got to know him later through shared Austronesian interests (e.g. myself) send heartfelt condolences to his colleagues, friends, and family. We will miss him, and his deep insights.

    • Thank you Diane and thank you for sharing these details of Frank’s life in Toronto. He leaves such a big gap!

  11. Thank you, Andreea, for your very moving tribute to Frank, such a respected and valued scholar and colleague.

    Helen C. has organised a book for entering condolence messages on Level 4 of the Arts 1 building at UoA , for any friends of Frank who want to leave a comment there.

  12. Multumesc, Andreea, pentru acesta. Frank was an old friend from grad school days, a fellow fieldworker in Papua New Guinea, and officemate in Hawai‘i. I’m still in shock at the news of his death.

  13. I am devastated by the news. Frank was a close and dear friend. I cannot imagine that he is no more. My deepest condolences to Frank’s family, friends, students and all those whose lives he touched .

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