Pieter Muysken (1950-2021)

Date of news: 9 April 2021

Pieter Muysken

Last Tuesday, our esteemed colleague and emeritus professor Pieter Muysken passed away. Linguist and Spinoza Prize winner Muysken worked at Radboud University since 2001, until his retirement in 2017. Pieter was 70.


In Memoriam Pieter Muysken (1950 - 2021)

A linguist does not necessarily have to speak many languages ​​himself, but Pieter Muysken did. He was a true wonder of languages. Born in Bolivia, he already spoke four languages as a child: Dutch, Spanish, English and Quechua. He came to the Netherlands at the age of six and quickly lost three of those languages, which was of course to be expected. When he heard that Sinterklaas was from Spain, he spoke to him in Spanish, but Sinterklaas did not even understand. Those early languages ​​probably made Pieter learn Spanish, English, Quechua and many other languages ​​so easily at a later age and so much faster and better than other people. The only language he did not pick up so easily was Sign Language of the Netherlands. This was due to his motor skills, which were also very characteristic of him. As Liesbeth Koenen wrote in an interview with him in NRC in 1997: ‘sitting still is impossible for him.’ Those who attended lectures remember how he bounced around the lecture hall, with large gestures that provided perfect support for his large ideas.

After his PhD in 1977 at the University of Amsterdam and appointments there as an assistant professor, associate professor and - from 1989 - professor respectively, he switched to Leiden University in 1998. In that year he also received the Spinoza Prize from the Dutch Research Council (NWO), with which he could finance his own research group. Three years later, in 2001, he accepted a professorship of General Linguistics in Nijmegen, which was the beginning of his time in Nijmegen. That time in Nijmegen was a succession of successes: he became Academy Professor in 2007 and received an ERC Advanced Grant in 2008. He initiated the website 'Voices of Africa', which was launched in 2014 and which shows the linguistic diversity of Africa, in word, image and sound. He has published four books on the thirty-four languages ​​of Bolivia. He was most proud of that, he told the Nijmegen university magazine Vox in an interview on his farewell. He thought it was very important that the research results from his Spinoza project were converted into an accessible and affordable, Spanish-language edition for the people of Bolivia itself. In the meantime, he also continued to do his ‘normal’ work: fieldwork, lectures, publishing scientific articles and (other) books and supervising his many PhD students. In addition to research and education, he was also active on the board, including as research director of the Center for Language Studies from 2005 to 2008. Although he was always very busy and took little or no time to have lunch, he never complained. He thought it was not that bad. He always worked with boundless energy and infectious enthusiasm on a range of different projects.

He was a linguist in the broadest sense of the word. He was world-famous not just in one field of linguistics, but in nearly all of them, such as language description and typology, second language acquisition, language contact, language change and variation, sociolinguistics, creolistics, but also theoretical linguistics. He had a broad vision of linguistics and the place of linguistics in the midst of other fields, such as anthropology and culture, but also mathematics and physics. He warned against the temptation to discover patterns in languages, to see language as a logical system, to solve puzzles, and to then think you know how it works. You think you have made a discovery, you think you know a language, but upon closer inspection that is not correct. In an interview in de Volkskrant on his farewell, he said: ‘Keep on reobserving things.’ That is what he did himself. He kept on reobserving and continued to be amazed by the richness of language.

The entire world of linguistics has reacted in shock to his unexpected death, only so soon after he retired in 2017. Everyone is reacting in disbelief and sorrow. With his death on April 6, 2021, the world loses a great researcher and a very inspiring and engaging personality.