In Memoriam: Robert Blust, 1940-2022

Written by Victoria Chen

Image credit: Photo provided by Dr. Russel Gray

Robert A. Blust, the leading scholar in Austronesian linguistics, passed away on January 5, 2022, at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa. This loss has saddened linguists, archaeologists and anthropologists worldwide, along with researchers on Taiwan Studies who have benefited from his work over the past five decades.

Blust was a historical linguist who specialized in the Austronesian language family, representing nearly 20% of the world’s languages and extending more than halfway around the globe. Born in Cincinnati, USA, in 1940, he developed a passion for minority languages and cultures as a young child. He earned a PhD in Linguistics in 1974 at UH Mānoa, after which he held positions at the Australian National University and the University of Leiden. He returned to the UH Mānoa in 1984 and spent most of his academic career there. Apart from his nearly 300 publications in linguistics, anthropology, and archaeology journals, his major projects include the 9,000-page online Austronesian Comparative Dictionary; the first single-authored book that offers a comprehensive introduction to the Austronesian languages (Blust 2009/2013); and a workbook on historical linguistics for the general linguistics public (Blust 2018).

As a leading figure in Austronesian linguistics, Blust developed a special tie with Taiwan even before his first visit to the island. In the 1980s, the linguistic position of Taiwan’s indigenous languages within the Austronesian language family remained unclear, and many spoken on the plains were under threat of extinction due to the rapid language shift to Mandarin and Taiwanese. Building on previous work by Isidore Dyen, Otto Dahl, Stanley Starosta, Raleigh Ferrell, Paul Jen-kuei Li, and Shigeru Tsuchida, Blust established that Taiwan was the homeland of the Austronesian family – the island where the Austronesian people’s thousand-year-long journey to Madagascar, Hawai‘i, and New Zealand, began. This conclusion had soon become the consensus in the field and common sense among the people of Taiwan.

In a recent paper, “Austronesian: A Sleeping Giant? (2011),” Blust noted that “patterns of linguistic diversity place the Austronesian homeland on the island of Taiwan, and a rich corpus of linguistic reconstructions shows that speakers of Proto-Austronesian (PAn) lived in sedentary villages of stilt houses, grew rice and millet, domesticated dogs, pigs, and chickens, practised loom weaving, and made pottery” (Blust 2011:538). This hypothesis dated back to two of his seminal works in the 1980s and 1990s –“The Austronesian homeland: a linguistic perspective” (1984) and “Subgrouping, circularity and extinction: some issues in Austronesian comparative linguistics” (1999), where he concluded that Taiwan was the starting point of the Austronesian dispersal.

In reaching this conclusion, Blust demonstrated that Taiwan is the only Southeast Asian island that satisfied all conditions of the Proto-Austronesian world as suggested by the linguistic evidence: an island that “had three types of bamboo, the areca palm and nut, two types of fern, the sword grass Imperata cylindrica (often associated slash-and-burn agriculture), three words for millet, the stinging nettle, pandanus, derris root (used to stupefy fish), rattan, five words connected with rice, sugarcane, the “elephant ear’’ taro (Alocasia spp.), and several plants (Solatium nigrum, Smilax, Urena trees (Cordia spp., Pinus spp.)) as well as “the presence of deer, the dog, some type of dove, freshwater eels, at least one monkey, the pangolin, wild and domesticated pigs, and some kind of large ruminant which may have been distinct.” In terms of landscape, “a tectonically unstable area (PAn *linuR) with hills or mountains, lakes, possibly some influence from the monsoons (though this appears marginal), a distinct cold season and periodic typhoons” (Blust 1984-5:52).

Along with this groundbreaking claim, Blust developed his well-known ten-branch subgrouping for the Austronesian family and noted that the indigenous languages of Taiwan represent no fewer than nine independent primary branches, indicated in the figure below. 

Soon after his first trip to Taiwan in 1994, Blust began conducting primary fieldwork on Formosan languages. He dedicated a considerable amount of time to the documentation of Thao, a nearly extinct Western Plains language. He was most proud of his Thao Dictionary (2003), the outcome of primary fieldwork between 1994 and 1999. This work remains the largest English-language dictionary of any Formosan language to date, with 1,106 pages and more than 13,000 entries and sub-entries. He enjoyed sharing the circumstances under which he conducted the fieldwork using a chain of interpreters, first English-Mandarin, then Mandarin-Taiwanese, as the Thao consultants could speak only Taiwanese but not Mandarin. He also worked with the last fluent speaker of Pazeh during the same period and published a series of works on Thao, Pazeh, and the interrelationships of Formosan languages. 

His interest in preserving endangered Formosan languages can be seen through a short note he wrote for his Thao Dictionary: “my first contact with the Thao community was made through the good offices of Mr Teng Hsiang-yang of Pu-li, who put me in contact with Mrs Yuan Chang-erh (Thao name: Ishul), wife of Mr Shih A-sung (Kilash). It did not take long to discover that Mrs Shih’s husband was temperamentally more disposed than her to the tedious work of explaining how to say things in Thao. In time I discovered a third speaker […] .” (Blust 2003:9). Many who worked with him during his field trips to the Thao and Pazeh still remember his passion for these languages.

Blust continued to publish work on Formosan languages until the final year of his life. In addition, he supervised three doctoral dissertations on Formosan linguistics. He was in frequent contact with Taiwanese scholars, including Professors Paul Jen-kuei Li, Lillian Mei-jin Huang, Elizabeth Zeitoun, and Ying-chin Lin. He was also strongly supportive of the work on Formosan languages coming out of Taiwan. He comments, for example, that the recent monograph on Saisiyat morphology (Zeitoun, Chu, and kaybaybaw 2015) was “not only valuable for its content but timely in saving something of a language that may not survive very far into the future.”

Anyone who has spoken briefly with Bob would be impressed by his passion for languages and his encyclopaedic knowledge about language, culture, and history. I find it hard to believe that he is no longer with us. As one of his last few PhD students, I had the indescribable good luck to have regular conversations with him between 2013 and 2017. His office door was always open, and he always set aside his work immediately for anyone who went in with questions. He would open maps, dictionaries, and grammars for explanation and generously offered hours of time for discussion. His unfailing patience and passion for sharing knowledge have influenced a great many of us. He is greatly missed as a leading figure in the field and as an extraordinary academic father.

Bob will be remembered for his unfailing passion for Austronesian languages, his generosity in sharing knowledge and time with students, and the kindness, academic honesty, and persistence he had towards any question he was interested in. He will live in the hearts and minds of so many of us who he has nurtured and inspired.

My thanks to Drs. Jason Lobel and Elizabeth Zeitoun for providing information and feedback on this tribute. Readers who are interested in Professor Blust’s full list of publications can refer to his personal site at https://blusthawaii.wixsite.com/blust and an In Memoriam piece in the June 2022 issue of Oceanic Linguistics.

Victoria Chen is a Senior Lecturer (tenured Associate Professor) in Linguistics at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. She received her PhD degree from the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa in 2017 under the supervision of Professor Robert Blust. Her research focuses on the higher-order subgrouping of the Austronesian language family and the morphosyntax of Formosan languages.  

This article was published as part of a special issue titled ‘In The Memoriam: Robert Blust, 1940-2022.’

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s