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 organized a workshop in his honour in December 2018. 

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.


from Angie Bonia: 

I was saddened to hear of Michael’s passing. His passion for life and his kindness and generosity will be missed . He had so many wonderful qualities but I loved his authenticity most of all. He will remain in my memory as a great human being who left the earth too soon.


from Emily Sadlier-Brown:

The first class I took at UBC, after a few years away from linguistics, was Michael’s graduate syntax class. I remember how he fielded my endless challenges to this or that argument with his characteristic graciousness, and, amazingly, never even a hint of exasperation (which I may have deserved). You could ask him anything and you could always count on a thorough and objective answer, often imbued with historical detail that gave syntax the excitement of a story. Michael’s class reminded me what I loved about the formal side of linguistics, which ended up shaping the course of my Ph.D. research. As a teacher and supervisor, Michael was always on your side. If I went into a meeting with Michael feeling unprepared and lacking confidence, I always left feeling re-assured and confident. He simply didn’t judge. In fact the thing I think I will remember most about Michael is how he related to people – always with empathy, openness and lack of judgment. I loved working with Michael, loved his kind presence that seemed to lend balance to all situations, and I loved his sudden loud laugh. We have lost a great mind, a great mentor, and my heart goes out to the many, many people who are grieving his loss.


from Fritz Newmeyer:

I’m still in shocked disbelief about Michael’s passing. Marilyn and I had dinner with him and Bruce a few months ago, and not only did Michael make the best lasagna that I’ve ever had in my life, but he seemed full of ideas and energy.

I met Michael in the late 1970s and we had been good friends ever since. Just a word on his contributions to linguistics, since his younger friends and colleagues might not be aware of it. Michael’s dissertation on stylistic rules was groundbreaking. At the time very few formal linguists were interested in what came to be called ‘information structure’. Michael showed neatly how ideas like ‘focus’ could be incorporated into formal theory and spent much of his career further developing the theory of focus, topic, etc. within the context of generative grammar. The field owes an enormous debt to his research.


from Marianne Huijsmans:

I am so saddened at Michael’s passing. He has been on my committees and a mentor to me since I began studying at UBC. He never wavered in demanding the best and most thorough work that I could do, but always with great kindness and generosity. His mentorship has had a very important impact on the care that I take in approaching analysis and will always influence the way that I think about syntax and the mapping between syntax and semantics. I will miss his insight and his constant challenge to do better very much as I continue forward, as I will miss his kind and generous spirit.


from Barbara May Benhardt:

It was with such deep sadness that I heard that Michael Rochemont had passed at the beginning of July. In my doctoral program in speech-language pathology (1984-1990), Michael’s classes in syntax were unforgettable in their clarity and inspiration. Although my path led elsewhere, I ended up taking additional courses from him just to keep learning — he made it so interesting. Ironically, in conversations with him about dissertation topic ideas for speech-language pathology, he suggested steering away from syntax-semantics to phonology, which was, he said, ‘closer to the surface’….I took that advice, and consequently our paths diverged…but it was always great to run into him at Ling events, and so wonderful that he was able to return to UBC over the last few years. By reading through the messages, I can see that I was not alone in finding him an inspiring mentor, researcher, teacher and above all, human being. My heartfelt condolences to his family and friends, and to the Department of Linguistics at UBC, his home away from home.


from Sara Nik Nezhad:

I just read this very sad news and got shocked! He was a great and knowledgeable teacher . He generously spent his time before and after class to help his students learn the material . Although the contents were so hard he always did his best to help and support us to learn . It’s an honor for me to have the chance of being his student and am deeply sad for his lost! REST IN PEACE DEAR DR. ROCHEMONT! We all will miss you.


from Nancy Hedberg:

Michael was immensely inspiring even to me, across town at Simon Fraser University. He invited me a while ago to collaborate with him on deaccenting (givenness marking), and we met last summer for coffee to discuss it, which turned into a 3-hour conversation about why I should not continue as chair for a second term. He was so supportive of me quitting that I paradoxically ended up deciding not to quit, under the condition that I start doing research again, which I am doing now. I confessed this decision to him in the spring, and he supported it, and we decided to use one of my small grants to go ahead and start examining the Fisher telephone speech corpus to seek support in speech for his theory of givenness marking. We were going to start the research in July. It would have been so good. I so wish we could be doing it.


from W. P.:

I was shocked and sad to hear of the passing of Dr.Rochemont. He sat in the examination committee of my com examination and assisted me, a student outside the field of linguistics, to grasp the meaning and nuances of several linguistic concepts. In the process, he showed patience, generous, expertise, and wisdom. Thank you for being a part of my life, Dr.Rochemont.

My deepest condolences to his family, friends, and colleagues.


from Elise McClay:

It’s been more than a month, and I’m still trying to collect my thoughts. They end up being simple: Michael was a knowledgable, patient, passionate linguist, and I was lucky to have him on my committee, and lucky to have gotten to learn from him. He had the most fearless curiosity, and a trust that he could learn something from pretty much any conversation, with any person. He was genuine, and kind, and always aiming to be a better person. I’ll miss him.

This summer, I came across sentence with some interesting syntax going on in a book by Terry Pratchett. I thought Michael might like it (raising in the wild?), so I made a note of it: “[…] but he was a straightforward man and the press of the Sto Plains could eat up for lunch a straightforward man if he wasn’t careful.” I failed to pass it on in time, but sentences like this are probably always going to stick out for me. I’ll always be grateful for these little grammatical reminders of Michael’s wonderful personality and presence.


from Sihwei Chen:

It still feels unreal to me. We just met in Michael’s office for a committee meeting but he was not there. I will not be able to show him the final revision of my thesis; I hope it has kept some of the wisdom he shared with me and the great insights he input into our meetings and discussions over the past years.

I was in Michael’s syntax class and seminar, and I was even lucky to have him on my thesis committee since the completion of those classes. In that syntax class, I was totally in awe of his knowledge of generative grammar and Minimalism. As a committee, Michael was always supportive. He led me to see the issues I couldn’t have seen and to appreciate my work and what more I can do. I am very grateful to have learned him and hope I work toward his generosity and kindness to people and his tireless passion for research and teaching. I will forever miss him.


from E. T.:

Among the many classes I took with Professor Rochemont, LING 447N was where I felt like I was finally beginning to get to know him better. His interest and love for information structure was incomparable! Even with the most dry topics, Michael exuded passion. This course in particular was awesome because, in this small class of maybe 25 people, we got to create and present our own research for different topics, and no matter what issues we chose, he was always incredibly attentive, helpful, and caring. You could just tell he respected us as researchers and presenters- always beaming with a smile on his face. As I head into my final year in the department and at UBC, I will miss seeing him at the front of the class teaching and sharing stories. I’m so glad I was able to have him almost every year of my degree!

And even though I will always picture him in his classic black long sleeve shirt, I’ll never forget the one time he wore the coolest colourful sweater to class 🙂


from Lorraine Ho:

My deepest condolences to Professor Rochemont’s family and friends. He was a brilliant professor, whom I had the honour of learning under in my last year of UBC undergrad. He was very highly regarded by my classmates and I, for not just his wisdom and intellect, but his warm and compassionate personality. I’ve learned so much from him and am forever thankful. May you rest in peace Professor, we will miss you.


from Carol Crockett DeLuca:

I was so sad to see Michael Rochemont listed in the “In Memoriam” section of the UMass Magazine Spring 2019. Michael, in 1977 a graduate student at UMass charged with introducing undergraduates to transformational grammar, was one of my favorite teachers. Hard work for me, his class, but fun, too, particularly when pondering the use of “eh,” “huh,” and “interesting.” It was clear that Michael loved languages, linguistics, and was a natural at teaching with patience, clarity, and enthusiasm. His movements at the front of the classroom were often so fluid that he seemed to be dancing.

My condolences to his family, friends, and colleagues.


from Tim Austin:

I read of Michael’s death only today, as I glanced through the University of Massachusetts Alumni magazine. I share the sentiments of others who have expressed their love of Mike’s natural warmth, his generous smile and sometimes explosive laugh, his brilliant mind and his honesty as a human being. Mike and I began our careers together at U/Mass in 1973 under the guidance of Adrian Akmajian, Joan Bresnan, Jay Keyser, Tom Roeper, Lisa Selkirk, Emmon Bach, Barbara Partee, and Don Freeman. Those were exciting times and Mike stood out in the group not only for his height and his style (sporting an afro and bright bell-bottom pants) but for his ability to be at ease with so many people from so many backgrounds. While our paths would later diverge, I shall always remember Mike with great fondness.