In Memoriam: Michael Rochemont

It is with great sadness and disbelief that I have to share with the world that Michael Rochemont passed away peacefully on July 3rd 2018. 

On behalf of the Department of Linguistics I wish to extend our heartfelt condolences to those he left behind who loved him so dearly.

It is too soon for us as a department to comprehend what his passing means and what this new reality will look like. We have lost a dear friend, colleague, mentor, teacher, advisor, and researcher. He was the wise man in the department, filled with integrity and kindness; he not only shared with us his brilliant mind but also his heart and soul.

The linguistics community has lost a leader in the field of information structure.

He will live on through the contributions he made and the wisdom he shared.

Please, share your memories of Michael with us and the world, and we will update this page to share them.

We are planning to organize a workshop in his honour later this year. Announcements will be made in due time. 

Martina Wiltschko, 6 July 2018


Memories of Michael Rochemont Shared with the Department of Linguistics

 

from John Lyon:

I am shocked and sad to hear of Michael’s passing…. rarely have I met a linguist so tireless in his own research, so knowledgeable about pivotal data and arguments in information structure, yet so balanced and unbiased with respect to theory. His genuine appreciation for linguistic diversity, and endangered languages, really shone, and his patience with students such as myself, his dedication to clarity of explanation, his generosity in sharing his often brilliant insights, and his humor and lightheartedness during class, I will all sorely miss. What I know and remember about information structure, is due mostly to Michael, and I will miss him as a teacher.

 

from Robert Swan:

So sorry to hear of the passing of Dr. Rochemont. I never had the pleasure of having taken a course with him, but he was already a very well liked and respected fixture of the department while I was an undergraduate in 1988-89.

My condolences to his family, friends and colleagues. He will be greatly missed.

 

from Anne Bertrand:

In the past year I had the great, immense privilege to work with Michael. He shared with me, with unbounded generosity, his profound humanness, curiosity, wisdom and graceful intelligence. We had so many unfinished conversations and projects, and I still can’t believe they will be forever suspended in time.

Michael managed to change the way I see myself and the world for the better, and I am forever grateful to have known him.

With my deepest condolences to his partner, his family and his friends…

Goodbye, Michael.

 

from Joash Gambarage:

I am still in disbelief about Michael’s passing. I have taken LING 300 with Michael in 2010 and a seminar on information structure. I have also TA for him previously. He has always been in my academic supervisory committees. Most of what I know about syntax is due to him. He has trained me, mentored, and supervised me and left great insights to me work. In all my encounters I have come across Michael as a very dedicated and passionate professor, an amazing syntactician that I have come to know. He was very transparent but also very careful when it comes to giving feedback to me/students. I recall him saying to me “we want the best from you, Joash”. It is incredible that he read my syntax chapter sick as an email about his passing hit me while working on his constructive comments on the chapter that he sent to me two weeks ago. He did not want to go without seeing my syntax chapter being in good shape. I don’t cry often but, man, this one hit me really hard. One day I will understand why.

 

from Carrie Gillon:

I never took any classes with Michael, but he was always so kind to me. When I had to negotiate a particularly delicate situation (as an undergrad!), he was really helpful and diplomatic. He also always struck me as very knowledgeable about language, without even the tiniest bit of snobbery or arrogance. I wish I had taken classes with him, because I know I would have grown as a linguist and a person if I had. What a sad day.

 

from Rosemary Xinhe Hu:

I can’t count the number of days my classmates and I would leave class chatting animatedly about how fascinated we were by how Michael was able to impact us in such a profound way through inspiring so so much curiosity and appreciation for language as a whole. After my first day of class with him, I approached him afterwards to ask if he wrote poetry, because of how eloquently he lectured.

He showed me why linguistics matters, which allowed for me to be more aware of which ways it specifically mattered to me. His classes and discussions change the course of his students life paths, and challenge how we think about linguistics, but also challenge how we think about living. Not only will he not be forgotten, but his character, intellect, and eloquence will continue throughout all the lives he has touched.

 

from Taylor Roberts:

Prof. Rochemont was brilliant, as everybody knows—but so are many professors. He also had the rarer quality of generosity of time. I was his student for a short time and Prof. Rochemont was very encouraging to me, which I really appreciated then and now. I thank him again for being such a great role model for the following generations of students.

 

from Leslie Saxon:

I’m heartsick to know that I won’t have the chance to talk together with Michael again. We collaborated years ago and from that experience I grew tremendously in knowing how to think about syntax. He was strong, wise, brilliant, and a true friend to me and so many others. I send my dearest condolences to all who knew and cherished Michael.

 

from Kelly Cameron:

Doctor Rochemont was the one who showed me just how compassionate a field linguistics really is. He would go on tangents about the importance of acceptance and mindfulness when approaching the grammar of different English dialects. He was a sweetheart of a man, and the department will feel incredibly empty without him.

 

from Anonymous:

Michael brought his teaching off of the page and into the world. He would always make time for his students, always engage with them, and always treat them with respect. His passion was as captivating as his smile, and he will be missed both in the field he advanced and in the students he inspired.

Michael’s 201 course captivated my interest in linguistics. After that course’s final exam Michael approached me – and standing very close – told me that I should stay at UBC. This was an invaluable recommendation, and one which I will never regret.

I cannot forget his advanced syntax course either, where he sat in his chair, and looking out the window or into our eyes, would spit syntax fire: explaining away syntactic history and why it was wrong, before lunging towards the glorious Minimalist Program and how Noam Chomsky, wrestling with his own past writings, could deliver us yet unto the One True Solution to sentence structure in human language.

He was a master of the Socratic method, establishing convenient fictions before smashing them in front of our faces. We moved through the literature with him, struggling with it, challenging it, forging alongside it a deeper understanding.

I am saddened by the news of Michael’s passing, but grateful to have had him in my life. He is still alive in all those that knew him.

 

from Lisa Matthewson:

It’s good to have this venue to say a few words about what Michael meant to us and how much we miss him. Thank you everyone for your moving words.

Michael was a great and kind human being. He was wise, and honest, and courageous. He was passionate about the field of linguistics, about the good of the department, and about justice and equity.

Michael was a valued mentor for me. I treasured his total personal integrity, his good judgment, his thoughtfulness, his incredible generosity with his time, his compassion and empathy, and his insight into people’s characters. Michael could be relied upon to tell it like it is, but with kindness. He could also be relied on to see the absurd side of a situation or laugh at himself.

Michael modeled a quality I greatly admire: he was always striving to be a better person. He shared his own personal struggles with others, rather than pretending he had it all sorted. This is inspiring to the rest of us. Michael and his partner also modeled what a deeply loving and supportive relationship looks like.

I miss him so much. As a friend, a colleague, and a bedrock and guider of our department. I hope for us that we will channel his spirit in the future.

My heart is with everyone who is grieving this loss.

 

from Hotze Rullmann:

I am still in disbelief about this tragic news. The last time I saw Michael he was feeling so much better and more energetic than he had been in the past few months, and he was looking forward to his sabbatical. He leaves a big hole in the department. He was my mentor for many years, and a trusted and inspiring colleague. I will miss his wisdom, generosity, kindness, and sense of humour. He was a brilliant scholar and teacher, dedicated to his research and his students. Most importantly, he was a gentle soul and a good human being. He will continue to be an inspiration for all of us.

 

from Walter and Suzanne Ince:

As one of Michael’s teenage friends, I became aware of his linguistic genius through his mastery of the German language first. But my memories of Michael, and I’m sure of our large group of friends back then, were more of his care for his brothers and sisters, playing basketball on the outdoor courts of Ville Lasalle, a suburb of Montreal and going to high school dances. We all had so much fun back then. A few months ago, we had the pleasure of meeting Michael’s partner when they visited Montreal. We shared a meal, some memories, laughs and talked of maybe getting together again……in the future.

Deepest condolences to all of his family and anybody who’s life he touched.

 

from Jack Herzberg:

I was not a student or colleague of Michael’s – I hope it’s still appropriate to share here. I met Michael when he was doing post-graduate work at the University of California, Irvine, through mutual friends. We hit it off as friends very quickly. While we spent many hours out dancing and relaxing on the beach, I was most impressed that we could have intense conversations about anything and everything, and that he could explain how language played a part in my life that I never appreciated before, but in such a way that I felt like an equal part of the conversation, in spite of my complete lack of education and training in linguistics. Spending that time with him was a gift that shed light into my life exponentially. My sincere and heart-ful condolences to his colleagues and family and friends. His memory will be a blessing for all of us.

 

from Kathleen Currie Hall:

It’s hard to know where to begin. In my relatively short time here at UBC, I had seen Michael in many capacities: as esteemed scholar when he gave an academic lecture, as wise counsellor at countless department meeting, as legendary teacher from whom I sought advice about my own classes. But I only recently (to my chagrin) encountered the language activist – one of my most memorable conversations with him was this past December, when we had a long discussion about language and social justice. He made it very clear that to his mind, this was the single most important thing we could talk about as linguists and that, more generally, language is the most important element of the human experience. He emphasized in particular that, on the one hand, we shouldn’t beat ourselves up so much for our own use of language as speakers, but that, on the other, we need to take far more responsibility for our understanding of language. He pointed out that we often labour under the misconception that if a speaker is being authentic and chooses their language carefully, there will be no ambiguity, but this of course is false, and the listener bears a responsibility for accurate interpretation. It was a conversation that gave me a lot of food for thought, and the Language Sciences initiative to have a series of public talks on the topic was greatly informed by it. Michael and all his guises will be sorely missed, and I can only hope to be at least a partial ambassador of his message for future generations.

 

from Angelika Kratzer:

I knew Michael mostly through his work on Information Structure that has brought so much clarity into an area where most of us get lost in a jungle of competing conceptualizations of what even the phenomena are that we are after. Most recently, I fell in love with Michael’s landmark article on Givenness in the Oxford Handbook of Information Structure. I am grateful for the few occasions I saw and talked to Michael in Vancouver. I was happy when he returned to his department after his long illness, and I can’t quite yet grasp the reality that he is gone.

 

from Christiana Christodoulou: 

Unfortunately, I did not take any classes with Michael, as he was away for most of the duration of my studies at UBC. We only interacted a handful of times, but I remember that he was really kind and encouraging when I was dealing with the stress of submitting the final draft of my PhD dissertation. There seemed to be a lot of wisdom in his words but it was stripped from any sign of pretentiousness, which made his words very reassuring and inspiring at the same time! I wish I had the opportunity to learn more from him, both as a linguist and as a human being!

 

from Martina Wiltschko:

I met Michael in 1994 at a conference. I was a student working on extraposition for my dissertation. It was a topic where I considered him THE expert. And to my absolute astonishment he was the most supportive person in the audience. It meant so much to me.

Little did I know then, that he would remain in this role for nearly 25 years: a supportive supervisor through my postdoc at UBC (until he had to go on leave), a supportive mentor when I became faculty, though from a distance.
I was so happy when he came back and became my colleague and official faculty mentor. I had countless conversations with him about givenness and common ground, about ups and downs of work and departmental concerns, about life and the human condition, about motherhood and letting go, and most recently about what it’s like to be anemic and the feeling of regaining strength and focus.

There was absolutely nothing I could not talk about with Michael. And I am incredibly grateful that he has touched my life in this way.

I cannot believe that from now on I can’t just go next door and tell him things, ask him things, or just catch a smile. I will have to just ask myself: “What would Michael say?”
It feels lonely without him.

 

from Eric Rosen:

I was very saddened to hear about Michael.

Twenty-six summers ago I wandered unannounced into his office at UBC, off the street as it were, never having met him before. I asked him about a half-baked plan I had then to go back to university after many years away and take some courses in some areas that sounded vaguely interesting. We ended up talking for a long time and his encouragement and enthusiasm were far beyond what I had expected.

I ended up taking his 300 and 301 courses in syntax and, thanks to his support and brilliant teaching, got into the grad program in linguistics two years later where I also worked as a research assistant on his then-new focus project and was supervised by him for my master’s thesis.

Looking back on those years, it’s clear that he was an absolutely key person for me at a turning point in my life. I can completely confirm the statements other people have made on this webpage about the superlative personal qualities that he consistently exhibited. Without having met Michael things would have been very different for me.

He will be greatly missed.

 

from Alfred Ko:

I have been deeply saddened upon hearing this news. Professor Rochemont, thank you very much for being a wonderful professor for my courses, for helping me find my passion for linguistics, for taking all the time to help me with my very first research project as a supervisor, which I later presented at SALSA’s first linguistics undergraduate conference (MURC) in the spring of 2017, and finally for your dedication to being a reference for some of my applications. You were a very intelligent and caring professor, passionate for not only linguistics, but for selflessly helping as many students, including I, do well in courses as well as help a good many find their newfound interest in linguistics. Even with content that I used to find complicated, such as grammar and Information Structure, you helped me find my newfound interest for it. Once again, thank you, and I will never forget the kindness that you have gave and how you inspired many students.