David Stampe

A preliminary death notice for David Stampe, an old friend and hugely influential colleague in my work in linguistics. A first pass, deficient in many of the customary details about academic careers, reproducing the death notice on Facebook from David’s son John (with some amendments in square brackets):

David Lynn Stampe, June 13, 1938 – June 23, 2020

[Faculty positions in linguistics], 1966-2010

Specializing in Natural Phonology

Taught at The Ohio State University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, The University of Hawaii at Manoa [Associate Professor of Linguistics, retired]

PhD from University of Chicago [A Dissertation on Natural Phonology (1973)]

BA in Comparative Literature from Indiana University.

High School: Frankfort (IN) H.S. 1956

Eagle Scout for Boy Scouts of America

Family: Dr. Patricia Donegan (Wife), Dr. Dennis Stampe (Brother), John Stampe (Son), Elizabeth Stampe (Daughter), Marty Roberts (Son-in-Law), Aylen Roberts (Grandson), along with numerous other in-laws, nieces and nephews. [Also David’s first wife, née Nancy Beavers, John’s mother, now married to Scott Kesselmayer of Maumee OH]

My father was accomplished at many things. He was an accomplished long distance runner and outdoorsman. He was an avid world traveler who especially loved India. He is best known in his field for his theories in Natural Phonology and his research of the Sora language (India). He was also politically active, a gifted artist and a devout music lover who played both guitar and piano. He is preceded in death by his parents Wilson and Ruth Ellen Stampe.

He was also a supreme hacker (in the old, good sense), back from the early days of university computer systems and continuing throughout his life.

Intellectually, he was inclined to look at things afresh, following a few leading ideas wherever they led him, more or less relentlessly. Many people found this disconcerting.

From the summary statement in “Hypotheses of Natural Phonology” by Patricia Donegan & David Stampe, in Poznań Studies in Contemporary Linguistics 45(1), 2009, pp. 1–31, the abstract:

Natural Phonology characterizes production and perception of speech in terms of a set of universal phonetically motivated phonological processes. Before their first words, infants identify some processes as inapplicable in their language, which narrows their perceptual universe to its phonemic system and enables them to hear the intention rather than the actuation of speech. They then gradually inhibit the inapplicable processes to achieve mature pronunciation. If some inhibitions are not fully mastered, the child’s speech seems to have a sound change, or perhaps a variable pronunciation, or a speech deficit. Processes that remain active govern allophony, variation, automatic alternations, one’s native “accent”, and one’s “foreign” accent in second-language learning. Inactive processes may (re-)emerge to cope with stresses like injury or fatigue. This paper surveys some of the principal hypotheses of Natural Phonology, and we briefly compare them with Optimality Theory and recent neo-empiricist phonology. We argue that abstraction from actions to intentions is fundamental to learning and understanding language at every level from phonetics to pragmatics.

David’s influence on my own work can be seen fairly dramatically in two papers of mine:

“Elementary phonology from an advanced point of view: A gloss on K&K” (Innovations in Linguistics Education, 1985).

“Rule interactions: Another gloss on K&K” (Innovations in Linguistics Education, 1987).

These are still favorites of mine. Yes, they were published in an extraordinarily out-of-the-way journal, but then no one else would have published such things.

David Stampe and Ilse Lehiste together were instrumental in bringing me to Ohio State in 1969. It’s hard to imagine two more janglingly disparate personalities, and this was probably the only time they collaborated on anything. But it was a good move for me, and I think I did some good things for OSU.

6 Responses to “David Stampe”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Doug Ball on Facebook:

    A loss for phonology, linguistics, and even all those who strive to do something of note on their summer vacation.

    Doug’s allusion is to David’s dissertation, which he embarked on before leaving Chicago for his first teaching position, at Ohio State (in, I think, 1966). He talked, spellbindingly, on the ideas in the dissertation, and amassed hundreds of pages of notes on them, in tiny, extraordinarily abbreviated diagrams written in his elegant script, but put off turning this material into text out of a demanding perfectionism. (At one point he told me he was making me his literary executor, to my deepest alarm, and I think he did, but then Patricia, with her keen intelligence and her practical approach to daily life, came along, so I was off the hook.)

    Meanwhile the years ticked by, and his years of candidacy for the PhD at Chicago were running down, so that he was obliged to save his career by actually completing a dissertation, which he did with ill grace during the summer of 1973. He submitted it under the defiant title How I Spent My Summer Vacation (as cited in the 2009 Donegan & Stampe paper). After some, um, bargaining, he consented to the neutral title A Dissertation on Natural Phonology.

    Maybe I should note that all the people centrally involved in this story led amazingly messy and fraught personal lives, and I was one of the stars (with an open affair with a male graduate student in 1970). Well, we were all young. The actual stories are some of them quite funny, and some genuinely instructive, but this is not the place to tell them.

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    Ok, one more story. David was passionately earnest, and could carry you away on those wings. Nancy Stampe told the story of trying to get David up one morning to go to teach at OSU. The alarm rang, and then rang later, and then rang once more, to no effect, so Nancy shook David, saying sternly, “David, you *have* to get up and get dressed!” David opened his eyes, looked at Nancy, and said, with utter conviction, “Nancy, I *am* up and dressed”, and for a few moments, she believed him, until reality returned.

  3. Stephen R. Anderson Says:

    With respect to David’s dissertation, it’s worth noting another factor. As I recall it, he had been offered a post-Doc at MIT for 1973-74. Only at the beginning of the summer did he learn that in order to take up a post-Doc, you had to actually be a Doc. Whether he would otherwise have just let the clock run out at Chicago isn’t obvious.

    I knew him as a fellow student in Jim McCawley’s classes in 1964-66. When he arrived in Cambridge in 1973, working to get that dissertation done, I was occupying a folding chair at Harvard, and he contacted me to get a stack pass for Widener Library, for which I may have had to declare him my research assistant or something. [I think I have the years right, but I may be off by one].

    We were never on the same page phonologically, but his work (what the world got to see of it) was immensely rich and valuable.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Another in-joke, “the folding chair at Harvard” — which I knew long ago as the Permanently Untenurable Assistant Professorship of Linguistics at Harvard, held by an extraordinarily talented series of linguists over the years.

  4. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Geoff Nathan, who has twice tried to post this reminiscence, but was foiled by WordPress both times:

    David was amazing, and infuriating. As I posted on Patricia’s FB page, Margaret [Winters, Geoff’s wife and also a linguist], David, Patricia and I spent many long evenings passionately debating many things, from the philosophy behind open source software to the consonant system of Proto-Indo-European to whether Japan or India was a better place to visit as a tourist (no exaggeration — I remember debates on all those topics). We’d drink way too much wine, eventually Patricia would throw together an amazing Thai shrimp curry and we’d drink more wine. Every so often David would sit down at the baby grand in their living room and tinkle away some Jazz improv, or some Bach. Then he’d go outside for a smoke. Sigh…

    (Geoff is Geoffrey S. Nathan, Wayne State University Information Privacy Officer (Retired); Emeritus Professor, Linguistics Program)

  5. Geoffrey Steven Nathan Says:

    Going to try once more, just to see whether the posting problem has gone away.

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