Saturday, September 16, 2023

Obituary Jacob Mey


On February 10, 2023, Jacob Mey died in Austin, Texas. His death is a great loss to the pragmatic community in general but especially to the International Pragmatics Association. He was a member of the IPrA Consulting Board from the beginning in 1986. He gave a keynote at the 4th International Pragmatics Conference in Kobe, Japan. On October 30, 2021, Jacob L. Mey received the IPrA ‘Award for Foundational Service in the Field of Pragmatics’.

Mey was born in Amsterdam on October 30, 1926. Having become a Jesuit, he arrived in Denmark in 1952 and took up the study of linguistics under Louis Hjelmslev; he took a degree in 1960 with a thesis La catégorie du nombre en finnois moderne. (He later left the Jesuit order.) He was a lecturer in linguistics at Oslo University, 1960-1966, and an associate professor at the University of Texas, Austin, 1966-1972. From 1972 to his retirement in 1996, he was Professor of linguistics in Odense (Denmark). He held numerous research fellowships and guest professorships, among others in Santa Monica (Rand Corporation, USA), Washington, Prague, Frankfurt, Campinas (Brazil), Haifa (Israel), Södertörn (Sweden), Brasília, New Haven, Evanston, Warwick, Hong Kong and Tsukuba (Japan). In 1993, he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Zaragoza.

In 1977, he founded the Journal of Pragmatics with Hartmut Haberland, and it soon became one of the leading journals, if not the leading journal, in the field that it in part had established. He was Chief Editor of the Journal until 2010, when the publisher replaced him. In  the same year he took, as a reaction, the initiative to a new journal Pragmatics and Society, together with Kerstin Fischer and Hartmut Haberland. In 2017, Elsevier Publishers established the Jacob L. Mey and Hartmut Haberland Early Career Award in recognition of the Journal of Pragmatics’ founding editors’ support for young scholars.

His contributions to journals and edited volumes are numerous. He edited a book, which after long delay appeared in 1979, Pragmalinguistics: Theory and Practice. This book marked Jacob’s entry into the field of pragmatics, which he defined as the study of language in the context of society. While not denying the relevance of structure in this context, he reminded us of the responsibility to society that students of language have. Thus he was one of the founders of what later became known as ‘Continental Pragmatics’ or ‘Pragmatics as a perspective’ (rather than a mere subdiscipline of linguistic studies), a concept he developed with Jef Verschueren. In one of his books he asked his academic fellows, “How can we make this world a better place in which to live?”. His view of pragmatics as the study of language use as a social activity was first hammered out in his Whose Language? A Study in Linguistic Pragmatics of 1985. This was followed in 1993 by his textbook Pragmatics: An Introduction, which was translated into several languages and followed by a revised second edition in 2001. In 2000, he dealt with one of his favorite topics, the relationship between language and literature in his When Voices Clash: A Study in Literary Pragmatics.

Constant awareness of the responsibility of students of language to society made Jacob’s work almost interdisciplinary by definition, but interdisciplinarity was also fed by Jacob’s broad-reaching (sometimes he referred to it as ‘catholic’) interest in language in all its facets. In the 60’s he had worked with the link of language to computation and he never quite lost his interest in the relationship between language and machines and in the pragmatic aspects of artificial intelligence. The relevance of pragmatics for literature is another of these facets.

His most important contribution to pragmatic theory is perhaps his notion of the ‘instantiated pragmatic act’ or ‘pragmeme,’ which he developed in the second edition of Pragmatics.

Jacob was fluent in a great  number of languages. Apart from his native Dutch these comprised at least English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Czech and German and all the Nordic languages (except Icelandic but including Finnish), and he could read several more. He took a great deal of interest in the study of Japanese, especially its writing system. Having become acquainted with Latin, Greek and Hebrew already in school he added Sanskrit during his studies. His knowledge (and love) of Greek and Roman literature was amazing.

Jacob is survived by his daughter from his first marriage und his wife Inger (married in 1965) and their five children.

[This obituary was contributed by Hartmut Haberland]

Source: Obituary Jacob Mey - International Pragmatics Association

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