Eric P. Hamp, renowned linguist of lesser-known languages, 1920–2019

Longtime UChicago scholar remembered for work on Indo-European linguistics

During his 41-year career at the University of Chicago, Prof. Emeritus Eric P. Hamp became one of the world’s foremost scholars of Indo-European linguistics. Not only did he base much of his scholarship on lesser-known languages and dialects, including Albanian, Breton, Quileute, Ojibwa, Arvanitika, Welsh, Irish and Scottish Gaelic, his UChicago colleagues said he rescued many of the most obscure ones.

Hamp, who passed away on Feb. 17 at age 98, compared modern languages to reconstruct how our common ancestors spoke thousands of years ago—long before language was recorded. He wrote and edited more than 3,500 articles and reviews in scholarly journals, ranging from topics in linguistics, anthropology and braille reading. Among academics, he was known for writing short papers of two to four pages, which colleagues say were incisive, brilliant and concise. He continued to impact his field even after his retirement in 1991—conducting research, writing papers and presenting his work at conferences.

“Eric was the master of so much data and so many languages that he could see connections that other scholars could not,” said Victor A. Friedman, the Andrew W. Mellon Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the Humanities at UChicago. “He contributed significantly to our understanding of the histories of every branch of the Indo-European languages and how they are related. Eric mastered the fundamental principles of historical linguistics, and he used them to create new knowledge.”

Hamp began his career as a University of Chicago instructor in 1950, retiring in 1991 as the Robert Maynard Hutchins Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of Linguistics, Slavic Languages and Literatures, Psychology, and the Committee on the Ancient World. He served as chair of the Department of Linguistics from 1966 to 1969 and as director for the Center for Balkan and Slavic Studies from 1965 to 1991.

Hamp studied the similarities in grammar, syntax, vocabulary and phonology among the Balkan languages, was a scholar of Native American languages and served as an editor of the International Journal of American Linguistics. Hamp also served as past president of the Linguistics Society of America.

“Eric was a master of working across different languages and discovering the mutual influences shaping those words, what the words mean and how the words are used,” said Michael Silverstein, the Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor at UChicago. “He could determine the area of people’s local culture and the history of what this word form meant to us.”

On his 92nd birthday in 2012, Hamp was honored by Posta Shqiptare, the national postal service of Albania, with a stamp in a series commemorating three foreign Albanologists; Hamp was the only living Albanologist recognized.

Harvard University scholar Jay H. Jasanoff recalled that Hamp was an amazing polymath who also was interested in storytelling and people. “Although Eric spoke many languages and accumulated enormous information on languages, Albanian was his first love,” said Jasanoff, the Diebold Professor of Indo-European Linguistics and Philology.

Born in London on November 16, 1920, Hamp entered Amherst College at age 16 and received his bachelor’s degree in 1942. After serving in the U.S. Army from 1942 to 1947, Hamp earned his master’s degree and PhD at Harvard University.

He is survived by his wife of 67 years Margot; two children, Julijana Love and Alex Hamp, and son-in-law Butch Love; and grandchildren: Gwen Hamp, Harold Love III, Richard Love, Mai Hamp, Evan Hamp and Alek Hamp.