Pieter Muysken

Posted: April 2021

The LSA regrets to announce the death of Professor Pieter Muysken, a talented and well-known sociolinguist who contributed to several fields of linguistics, and especially the study of pidgins, creoles, and mixed languages. A member of the LSA since 1980, Pieter died on April 6, 2021, after a long battle with an aggressive form of cancer. He was a Life Member of the LSA and contributed frequently and generously to the LSA General Fund. Pieter also served as an Associate Editor for the LSA's flagship journal, Language, from 2014-2016.

A colleague's heartfelt obituary on Facebook recently had this to say about Pieter:

Pieter Muysken was born in 1950 in Oruro, in the highlands of Bolivia. The altitude of Oruro, at over 3,700 meters, symbolizes for us his elevatedly profound and many-leveled contribution to linguistics. He contributed to fields as diverse as generative grammar, theoretical morphology, South American Indigenous languages, historical linguistics, codeswitching, areal linguistics, language description, minority languages, typology and, of course, the study of pidgins, creoles, and mixed languages. Having learned Spanish, Quechua and Dutch as a child, he added a significant number of other languages to his repertoire of spoken languages, including Papiamentu. He was instrumental in the establishment of at least two journals devoted to creolistics: Amsterdam Creole Studies in the 1970s and the Journal of Pidgin and Creole Languages in the 1980s.

His work in the realm of pidgins and creoles was groundbreaking in several areas: the study of creole languages from a generative perspective, the syntax of Papiamentu, the study of older texts in the Dutch creole from the Virgin Islands and the languages of Suriname, the establishment of the existence of mixed languages through his work on the mixed Quechua-Spanish language Media Lengua, and its embedding in a model of language contact in general. His productivity as a scholar was exceptional, with a book every year or two, and hundreds of articles, generating fresh ideas and insights up to just weeks before the diagnosis.

Through the (co-)organization of numerous workshops and conferences in Amsterdam, Leiden, Nijmegen (the three places where he worked as a professor) and elsewhere, he brought many people together, leading to all forms of collaboration. At the 1986 conference on substrates versus universals in Amsterdam, he and his colleagues laid the groundwork for the creation of the Society of Pidgin and Creole Linguistics and the Journal of Pidgin and Creole Languages.

His energy and ability to obtain grants—probably more than anyone else in his home country—supported many dozens of young linguists who were able to pursue their dreams thanks to his helping hand. And he may be the only person who at a conference on language contact could boast of having supervised the PhD dissertations of all but one of the conference participants.

As a human being, he was universally well liked, incredibly warm, and diplomatic yet honest. He was exceptionally generous with his knowledge, with his local and global networks, and with his time and his humanity, always ready to help others. Hundreds of linguists the world over continue to develop the intellectual and human legacy he created. The world of creolistics, contact linguistics, and the world at large, have lost one of their exemplary human beings and scholars.