Jan. 9, 2003
Vol. 22 No. 7

current issue
archive / search

    Linguist Kazazis, master of European languages, dies at 68

    Kostas Kazazis, a linguist known for illuminating both the variation within individual languages, such as Greek, and the common features shared among the many languages of the Balkans, died Monday, Dec. 23. He was 68 years old.

    At the University, where he taught for 35 years, Kazazis was known for the vast range of European languages he mastered and the generosity with which he helped students learn them. His course list included “Afrikaans for Linguists,” “Albanian,” “Ancient Greek,” “Estonian,” “History of the English Language” (which he co-taught with his wife, English professor Christina von Nolcken), “Italian,” “Modern Greek” and “Rumanian.”

    Jerrold Sadock, the Glen A. Lloyd Distinguished Service Professor and Chairman of Linguistics, who worked with Kazazis for more than 30 years, said his colleague had an “amazing facility with language–he spoke just about every European language in a remarkably colloquial way. He spoke Finland Swedish almost perfectly, and we would have conversations where I would speak Danish and he would speak Swedish.” One day, realizing his friend had somehow slipped into Danish, a language Sadock thought Kazazis did not know, he asked him, “Kostas, when did you learn Danish?” The answer came: “Last week.”

    Victor Friedman, a former student of Kazazis’, Chairman of the Slavic Languages & Literatures Department and the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities, remembers Kazazis spending hours making tapes for him so he would have a good model for pronunciation of various Balkan languages. Once, when Friedman was hospitalized, Kazazis simply moved class to his bedside so Friedman could keep learning.

    Born July 15, 1934, in Athens, Greece, Kazazis was exposed to linguistic and cultural diversity from an early age. He attended high school in Greece but studied political science at the University of Lausanne in the French-speaking part of Switzerland.

    He came to the United States, and in 1959 he earned an M.A. in political science from the University of Kansas. He earned his Ph.D. in linguistics at Indiana University. There he co-authored a reference book on the grammar of Modern Greek along with F. W. Householder and Andreas Koutsoudas. He taught at Indiana University and the University of Illinois before joining the Chicago Department of Linguistics in 1965, where he taught until his retirement in 2000.

    Friedman said Kazazis did important work on diglossia, a phenomenon found in Greek and Arabic, among other languages, where people use a high-status, official dialect for formal purposes that vastly differs from the one they speak on the streets. In a famous article titled “Sunday Greek,” which was based on a series of dialogues with an informant he called Socrates, Kazazis showed that everyday Greek speech includes a wide spectrum of forms, from learned to colloquial, even though the speaker may not realize it.

    Kazazis also used his knowledge of languages to connect people. Christina Kramer, a professor of Slavic and Balkan languages and linguistics at the University of Toronto, remembered a time Kazazis attended a conference on Macedonian in Toronto.

    “Macedonian-Greek relations are contentious,” she explained, and many members of the Macedonian community in Toronto had left Greece during the Greek civil war and had not been allowed to return. “A number of these people came to this conference, and were surprised that a Greek person was even going to be speaking,” said Kramer. “Kostas gave a talk about a group of Greek scholars who were critical of the Greek government on the Macedonian question. This was the first time that these people had heard any public statement that there was Greek intellectual opposition to the government–the first time they realized there were Greek people who would take up their cause.”

    His wife, von Nolcken, remembered him as a man who could make people “laugh until they cried, whether in private or at a lecture. I heard him give papers in various countries and languages, and he never used jargon. He was constantly thinking his stuff through until he could present it with extraordinary clarity and simplicity.” She said that “had he written his autobiography, it would have been a linguist’s autobiography.” On the morning of the day he died, Kazazis was studying Japanese.

    He is survived by von Nolcken; two daughters, Marina and Silvia; his first wife, Maria Jarlsdottir Enckell; and five grandchildren. The Department of Linguistics is planning a memorial service for 2003 and a fund in his memory to support students.