Deborah Schiffrin

Posted: July 2017

The LSA has learned with regret of the July 20, 2017 death of former LSA member Deborah Schiffrin (Georgetown University). 

See below for an announcement from the Georgetown University Linguistics Department: 


Notice of the passing of Deborah Schiffrin

With heavy hearts, we share the sad news that Professor Emerita Deborah Schiffrin passed away early on the morning of Thursday July 20. Professor Schiffrin was a treasured member of the Georgetown University linguistics department faculty from 1982 to 2013, and served as department chair from 2003 to 2009. In that capacity, she designed and oversaw the department’s Masters in Language and Communication. During her years on the faculty, she rose to a position of international prominence in our field, helped found and define the field of discourse analysis, and mentored many doctoral students who went on to become prominent in their own right.

Debby Schiffrin received her BA in sociology from Temple University and her PhD in linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied with William Labov and Erving Goffman, giants in the fields of linguistics and sociology respectively. Her work combined the fine-grained analysis of linguistics with sociology’s attention to social forces at work in society. This combination was evident, for example, in her study of personal narratives told by survivors of the Holocaust and of the United States’ internment of Japanese-Americans. 

In her first book, Discourse Markers, based on her dissertation, she coined the term that became standard in the field, and launched what became a fertile subfield of linguistics, as innumerable articles and dissertations were written, and continue to be written, on discourse markers in  English as well as many other languages.  In her second book, Approaches to Discourse, she showed how different branches of discourse analysis approach the study of conversation. It immediately became and remains a foundational text in the field.

Professor Schiffrin was among the first linguists to pay close attention to the way people tell stories in conversation, becoming one of the most prominent scholars to examine the role of language in displaying and constructing identity in narrative, as in her article “Narrative as self-portrait: Sociolinguistic constructions of identity,” and several volumes of collected papers on narrative that she co-edited. Her work on these and many other topics continue to be widely cited.

All who knew, worked with, or studied with Deborah Schiffrin know that her brilliant intellect was matched by her quietly unassuming manner and unfailing kindness. She will be sorely missed. Condolences may be sent to her husband, Dr. Louis Scavo, and her children, David and Laura Scavo, at 5125 Baltan Road, Bethesda, MD 20816.  In lieu of flowers, the family suggests that donations may be made in her memory to The Alzheimer’s Association. A memorial will be held at Georgetown in the fall.