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Karl Ernst Zimmer
In Memoriam

Karl Ernst Zimmer

Professor of Linguistics, Emeritus

UC Berkeley
Karl Ernst Zimmer seemed destined to become a linguist. He was born in Berlin, Germany, on September 17, 1927, and grew up in a bilingual German-Russian household. For health reasons, in 1935 he moved with his mother from Germany to Switzerland, where he acquired French. Karl’s father was a geologist engaged by the new Turkish republic in 1935 to survey the country in search of natural resources. In 1939, on the eve of World War II, he brought his wife and son to Ankara, where Karl became fluent in Turkish. The young Zimmer’s linguistic mind was thus primed by a collection of typologically different languages. He came to the U.S. in 1946 as a postwar immigrant, entering the University of Chicago as an undergraduate in 1947, becoming a U.S. citizen in 1953, and receiving a Ph.D. in linguistics from Columbia University in 1963. In 1956 he had married Suzanne Clements, with whom he came to the University of California, Berkeley, in 1965. They had two children, Paul (born 1967) and Catherine (born 1969). Suzanne Clements Zimmer died in a tragic accident in 1977. In 1980 Karl married Ronelle Alexander, now professor emerita in Berkeley’s Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures.

Zimmer’s long career was centered at UC Berkeley, where he was appointed in 1965 as an assistant professor in the Department of Linguistics, rising to the rank of professor and remaining there until his retirement in 1991. Along the way he served as chair or acting chair four times, in 1974 to 1978, 1981-82, 1983 to 1986, and 1988-89. Upon retirement, he was honored with the Berkeley Citation for distinguished service to the University and to the Department of Linguistics. But it was not the end, because he remained actively engaged with students and colleagues during the years that followed. In a Festschrift dedicated to Zimmer, his colleague, and incoming departmental chair, Larry Hyman, wrote of the many “scholars, junior and senior, who admire him for his wisdom and critical ability.” Hyman quotes another colleague, former department chair Paul Kay: “Both in and out of the chair, Zimmer has been the person who has provided the glue that has held the Department together. He has listened to everyone, sought and achieved compromises and never compromised his own principles.”

His dissertation dealt with affixal negation in English, French, German, and Russian, with additional exploration of several non-Indo-European languages (Finnish, Yoruba, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, and Thai). In a lifetime of research he repeatedly probed for ways in which phonology and morphology do not fit easily into established systems of almost exceptionless rules. It was the exceptions that captured his interest, and he sought to explain unexpected details of vowel harmony, prosody, nominal compounds, case, and causative constructions, among others. Over time, much of his research focused on Turkish, where he could draw on near-native intuitions. Perhaps he will be remembered best as a guiding force in the establishment of modern Turkish linguistics. In 1982, together with Dan Slobin, a Berkeley psycholinguist and fellow Turkish researcher, he established what has become a continuing biennial International Conference on Turkish Linguistics, convening at various times in the United States, Europe, and Turkey. Zimmer took part in the first 10 of those conferences, energizing a rising generation of Turkish linguists. In 2009 his career was celebrated by former students and colleagues with a conference at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul, resulting in a Festschrift in his honor, published in 2011.

Zimmer was an extraordinarily good colleague and friend. He was an attentive listener—supportive, not judgmental, caring about the life concerns of others. Those who were close to him appreciated his sharp and observant mind, his quiet and understated wit. He delighted in good wine and food, enthusiastically sharing it with family and friends. And he enjoyed physical activity into his eighties. He went trekking in Nepal with his son Paul, hiking in the Cascade mountains and Canadian Rockies with his wife Ronelle, and he rode his bike both to campus and up to Tilden Park. He and Ronelle spent many years exploring the languages and cultures of the Balkans and Turkey. He loved music and movies; he read fiction in several languages and passed on his recommendations with cogent evaluations; and he always enjoyed travel. He did not only enjoy literature, but was himself a witty poet, sharing short, pithy creations in German and English. His poems dealt with the vagaries of life and human relationships, linguistics, and, especially, cats (in English) and whales (in German).

Karl Ernst Zimmer died on September 2, 2019, and is survived by his wife, Ronelle Alexander (of Berkeley, California); his daughter, Catherine Zimmer (of Brooklyn, New York); his son, Paul Zimmer, and his grandchildren, Serafina Valisa and Lucas Zimmer (all of Tallahassee, Florida).

Dan I. Slobin
Larry M. Hyman
Ronelle Alexander