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Robbins Burling

Robbins Burling

Robbins Burling, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and Linguistics


Robbins Burling, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and Linguistics at the University of Michigan, passed away peacefully on January 2, 2021, at the age of 94 after a full, rich life. An eminent scholar in the field of anthropological linguistics, Burling was particularly known for his pioneering work in ethnography and linguistics of northeastern India, where he conducted his doctoral fieldwork and where he returned for research visits until the latter years of his life. Burling’s work has played a seminal role in the development of Trans-Himalayan (Tibeto-Burman) linguistics, inspiring generations of scholars and producing some of the field’s most formative works.  Professor Burling also had a strong interest in the evolution of the human ability to learn a language. He authored more than 130 scholarly publications including books, monographs, research papers and reviews across the fields of social and cultural anthropology, descriptive and historical linguistics, language pedagogy and linguistic theory. In many of these works, he engaged in some of the major debates of his era, especially regarding the nature and origin of human language. Throughout his career, Burling’s work was marked by uncompromising scholarly excellence, methodological rigor as well as solid empirical grounding in first-hand field data.

After graduating high school in 1944, Robbins Burling (Rob; he disliked being called “Dr.” or “Professor”) entered the Navy and served two years as a Radar Technician. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Yale (1950) on the G.I. bill, he then spent a year working and traveling around the world, an experience he treasured for the rest of his life. After returning to the US in 1951, Rob married Sibyl Straub, and began work on his Ph.D. at Harvard University. In 1954, he received a Ford Foundation Scholarship that took him and his young family to northeast India for two years to study and work with the Garo of Rengsanggri, leading to many life-long friendships and the beginning of his prolific writing career. 

After receiving his Ph.D from Harvard in 1958, Rob worked at the University of Pennsylvania as an instructor before receiving a Fulbright Scholarship in 1959, which took the family to Burma for a year as a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Rangoon (Burma). He returned to Penn as an Assistant Professor of Anthropology (1959-1963) and Assistant Curator of General Ethnology at the University Museum at Penn.

These early years of Rob’s career saw the publication of several groundbreaking works in linguistics and anthropology, including A Garo Grammar (1961) – the first modern grammar of a northeast Indian language – a reconstruction of Proto-Bodo (in Language, 1959) – the first reconstruction of a Trans-Himalayan language at the subgroup level – a pioneering study of early child language acquisition in a minority language setting (in Word, 1959), a monograph Rengsanggri: Family and Kinship in a Garo Village (1963), a popular textbook Hill Farms and Padi Fields: Life in Mainland Southeast Asia (1965, re-issued in 1992), and an influential reconstruction of Proto-Lolo-Burmese in 1967.

In 1963, Rob received a one-year Fellowship to the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. In 1964, he joined the University of Michigan as an associate professor of anthropology. In 1966, he became professor of linguistics and anthropology, and associate of the Center for South and Southeast Asian Studies. In 1971, Rob received a Guggenheim Fellowship that took him and his family to Toulouse, France for a year. In 1979-80 he was a visiting professor at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden.

After returning to Michigan, Rob served as chair of the Chair of the Department of Anthropology from 1980-83 and as interim director of the (then new) Program in Linguistics from 1985-86. Throughout his career, Robbins Burling served on many professional organizations including as Treasurer of the American Ethnological Society; member of the Executive Committee, Linguistic Society of America; member of the editorial Committee, Annual Review of Anthropology; and Senior Fellow of  University of Michigan Society of Fellows (1979-83). He retired from Michigan as Emeritus Professor in 1995.

Those who knew Rob could not fail to be impressed by the palpable love he felt for the northeast Indian region, its people, and their languages, and this sense of love and joyful intimacy pervaded his work. His lifelong fascination with the Garo language culminated with a 2004 three-volume study The Language of the Modhupur Mandi (Garo), which uniquely presented a modern, comprehensive analysis of Garo grammar and lexicon in a highly accessible prose style. His fascination with language evolution culminated around the same time in a popular volume The Talking Ape: How Language Evolved (2005). And Rob’s skill as a teacher is epitomized by his 1992 introductory linguistics textbook Patterns of Language.

After retirement Rob continued to travel (he made it to all seven continents) and write.  Just before his 90th birthday in 2016, Rob was honored with a Festschrift volume -- Language and Culture in Northeast India and Beyond: In Honor of Robbins Burling -- at the 8th International conference of the North East Indian Linguistics Society (NEILS), a conference Rob had attended faithfully since its inception in 2005. That same year he also published a treatise on spelling, Spellbound, written from his lifetime perspective of being a terrible speller. Rob was renowned for his concise, unpretentious and accessible writing, but it wasn’t until his happy discovery in college that a bad speller could still be a good writer that he began to write in earnest.

Rob loved his work and enjoyed the travel that it entailed, but he also loved working with his hands and was very proud of the fact that he not only designed his own house and two cabins, but that he built them himself, with the help of his son, occasionally roping in other family and unsuspecting friends. The family gatherings and activities every summer at a lake in Northern Ontario were also a source of deep pleasure. It was there that Rob grew to love canoeing and he remained an avid canoeist until nearly the end of his life, winning two gold medals at the age of 79 in the Michigan Senior Olympics. He was proud of his family, pleased that he had known seven generations, and that after the birth of his great granddaughter, was able to appear in his fourth four-generation photo.

Rob was predeceased by his wife Sibyl, his partner Anne Hvenekilde of Oslo, Norway, his brother James and his sister Helen. He is survived by his partner Sheila Procter and her family in England, his children, Stephen (Deborah), Helen “Nono” (Charles Pitz) and Adele (Fritz Yunck), four grandsons and a great granddaughter, several beloved nieces and nephews and daughter-in-spirit Beth Genne (Allan Gibbard) in the US. In Norway he is survived by Anne’s children, Karin and Audun Hvenekilde and their families. Rob will be deeply missed by his family and friends around the world and across all walks of life, the many students that he mentored and colleagues with whom he worked.