Passing of Emeritus Professor Paul Friedrich

To appear in "Anthropology News"

by Prof. Michael Silverstein

Paul W. Friedrich, Emeritus Professor of Anthropology, Linguistics, and Social Thought at the University of Chicago, succumbed to numerous debilitating illnesses on 11 August 2016, leaving to posterity one of the most extraordinary and varied of language-focused oeuvres, fashioned over some 60 years of professional life. He describes himself in his own words on his web site (, as “poet, anthropologist, linguist,” and the extraordinary and ever-shifting blend of the three avatars resonates in various creative ways through his long scholarly and literary career.

The oldest surviving child of Carl Joachim Friedrich (1901-1984), long an eminent Professor of Government at Harvard and public intellectual, and Lenore Pelham Friedrich (1901- 1991), Paul William was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts on 22 October 1927, and for much of his early life, reflected in later work, lived and was schooled in Concord, the town of Emerson, Thoreau, the Alcotts, et al. After a year and a half at Williams College (1945-46), he mustered into the United States armed forces, and returned from the service (PFC) to complete both bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Harvard in 1951, the latter working with the eminent Slavist Roman Jakobson, whose view of language and its poetic affordances, and whose love of Russian language and literature became as well a leitmotif of Friedrich’s work over the years. During this period he also had his first experience of a kind of fieldwork: in 1949 he was contracted by the newly established Russian Research Center at Harvard, directed by the anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn, to interview captured and dissident Soviets in post-war Berlin about life behind the Iron Curtain. His Yale Ph.D. was earned in 1957 under the encouraging tutelage of the late Sidney Mintz. For it, in 1955-56, with his first wife, Lore Bucher Friedrich, and two small daughters, Maria and Susan, along on the 17-month adventure, Friedrich did intensive political anthropological fieldwork and archival research in Michoacán for his dissertation among Tarascan (Purépecha)-speaking village dwellers; from it emerged the early Agrarian Revolt in a Mexican Village (Prentice-Hall, 1970; reprinted, University of Chicago Press, 1977) as well as The Princes of Naranja: An Essay in Anthrohistorical Method (University of Texas Press, 1987), both works focusing on oppositional indigenous politics and the local social forces organizing it. With his second wife, the material culture specialist Margaret Hardin, Friedrich returned to Michoacán for 18 months in the mid-1960s to work more intensively on the structure of the language, and in particular on the subtleties of its semantics. (See The Tarascan Suffixes of Locative Space: Meaning and Morphotactics [Indiana University Research Center in Linguistics and Anthropology, 1971; A Phonology of Tarascan [University of Chicago Department of Anthropology, 1973], and several major journal articles, such as “Shape in Grammar” [Language 46(2).379-407 (1970)].)

Conceptual semantics and its foundational role in the creativity of language at the center of all human experience and culture was long the central axis of Friedrich’s research, no matter his focus was Tarascan, Russian, Epic Sanskrit or Homeric Greek. In the Yale milieu of his graduate years, “ethnosemantics” and structural analysis of meaning were central. Friedrich was a brilliant master of such crisp, semantic-categorial analysis – viz., his elucidation of the Omaha kinship terminological system of Proto-Indo-European (“Proto-Indo-European Kinship” Ethnology 5(1).1-36 [1966]); his study of its “arborial semantics” in Proto-Indo-European Trees (Chicago, 1970); and his path-breaking “Structural Implications of Russian Pronominal Usage” (in Bright, ed., Sociolinguistics, 214-59 [Mouton, 1966]). Yet, what attracted his imagination and drove his long-term theoretical formulations about language, culture, and their intersection in a more abstract “linguaculture” are the affectively imbricated “aesthetic truths” borne by tropes revealed in a society’s imaginative discourse, its literature. This line of work, focused on the most varied of material, much within the realm of Indo-European linguaculture, increasingly became the generative axis of Friedrich’s scholarly output: The Meaning of Aphrodite (Chicago, 1982); The Language Parallax: Linguistic Relativism and Poetic Indeterminacy (Texas, 1986); Music in Russian Poetry (Peter Lang, 1998); The Gita within Walden (SUNY Press, 2008); and a long series of articles of which a few favorites in journals are “The tao of language” (Journal of Pragmatics 13(6).833-58 [1989]), “Language, ideology, and political economy” (American Anthropologist 91(2).295-312 [1989]), “An avian and Aphrodisian reading of Homer’s Odyssey” (American Anthropologist 99(2).306-20 [1997], and “Lyric epiphany” (Language in Society 30(2).217-47 [2001]).

Parallel to and essentially intertwined with all this academic and scholarly publication, Friedrich produced numerous volumes of poetry, including Neighboring Leaves Ride This Wind (1976), Bastard Moons (1978), Redwing (1982), Sonata (1987), From Root to Flower (2006), Handholds [haiku] (2009), as well as Harmony in Babel: Selected Poems and Translations (2007).

After completing his Ph.D., and after a relatively brief, 7-month Malayalam-focused field trip to Kerala, Paul Friedrich’s professional career took him first to the department of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, where he served as assistant professor from 1959-62. He then joined the departments of anthropology and linguistics at the University of Chicago (later adding an appointment in the Committee on Social Thought in 1992), as associate professor until 1967, as professor thereafter, taking emeritus status in 1996. He worked with graduate students across several departments, including South Asia, Classics, Slavic, Comparative Literature, etc. as well as those in which he held official appointments. He was awarded the university’s Award for Excellence in Graduate Teaching in 1999. In 2005, former students from the range of these programs and others on whom he had decisive influence presented him with Language, Culture and the Individual: A Tribute to Paul Friedrich (eds. Catherine O’Neil, Mary Scoggin, and Kevin Tuite [Lincom Press]). From his doctoral institution, Yale, Friedrich received the Wilbur Cross Medal in 2007.

Friedrich leaves a third (Deborah J. Gordon) and a fourth (Domnica Radulescu) ex-wife; six children (Maria, Su, Roland Peter, Kat, Joan Lenore, Nicholas [Radulescu]), and a step-child (Alexander Radulescu) from three of his marriages; three grandchildren (Nora, Isabelle, Asa); and a sister (Matilda C. Friedrich).

Something of the serial foci of intensity of Friedrich’s intellectual and affective lives can be gleaned from his interview, late in life, with his former doctoral advisee Dale Pesmen (Annual Review of Anthropology 43:15-26 [2014]). He notes: “I’m a great believer in immersion. It’s complicated. But you get started, and then you get very involved. . . . I do finally get things together after a number of years. Then, during about anywhere from four to six months—five to ten months—I take a deep breath and get it all together. That’s sort of a crazy period when I don’t think of anything else. All—most of my books have been written that way. That is, there was a period of gradual accumulation and internalization, and at some point, you flip the hammer and here you go, Friedrich! I used to call the creative process jags, when you often work 69 days in a row, or more. That leaves you thin.” Lean, and yet as it turned out hungry for the next immersive adventure, for the long series of which in Paul Friedrich’s life we are the grateful beneficiaries.

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