Joel Sherzer, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology, died peacefully on the morning of November 6, 2022. The cause was complications from Parkinson’s disease, according to his widow, Dr. Dina Sherzer. He was 80.
In addition to Dina Sherzer, he is survived by his brother William “Billy” Sherzer.
Joel Fred Sherzer was born on March 18, 1942, in Philadelphia, PA. His scholarly career straddled the disciplines of anthropology and linguistics. A prolific author and researcher, beloved professor, mentor, and friend, Sherzer is best known for his work on the language and culture of the Guna Peoples (known prior to 2010 as Kuna) in Panama. His ethnographic and linguistic work was deposited as the Kuna Collection of Joel Sherzer in the Archive of the Indigenous Languages of Latin America (AILLA), a digital repository he co-founded in 2000. He is also well known as one of the founders of UT’s vibrant and longstanding strength in linguistic anthropology, and as a proponent of the view that culture centers around speech play and verbal art, known as his discourse-centered approach to language and culture.
Sherzer grew up in Philadelphia and graduated from Central High School. He attended Oberlin College, where he majored in French and Spanish, graduating in 1964. It was during his senior year at Oberlin that he met Dina Marin, a Fulbright scholar who was working as a French assistant. The two were married later that year in Mexico City.
After college, Sherzer pursued his interest in languages and linguistics during two summer programs: funded by a Fulbright fellowship, he studied Nahuatl at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in Mexico City with Miguel León-Portilla and Morris Swadesh in 1964; at the University of California Los Angeles, he attended the Linguistic Society of America Summer Institute in 1966. He began graduate work in linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania in 1965 with a Woodrow Wilson fellowship, completing his doctorate in 1968. His dissertation, titled “An Areal-Typological Study of the American Indian Languages North of Mexico,” was published as a book in 1976.
In April 2014, The Linguist List published Sherzer’s short essay “How I Became a Linguist.” Here, Sherzer recalled his interdisciplinary graduate education, writing, “I was fortunate to study and interact with a creative, dynamic, and pioneering group of people in various departments. The work of my Penn teachers has remained with me all of my scholarly life. Along with others, I frequently crossed the street between the anthropology and linguistic departments.” He cited Henry Hoenigswald, Dell Hymes, J. David Sapir, Erving Goffman, and William Labov for their influence on his development as a linguist.
Academic Life and Archiving Indigenous Languages
Sherzer joined the faculty of the Department of Anthropology at The University of Texas at Austin (UT) in 1969, and served as its chair from 1987 to 1995. He became a member of the UT Department of Linguistics in 1978. He was the recipient of National Endowment for the Humanities fellowships in 1975 and 1997–98; a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1978–79; and several grants from the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities between 1975 and 2008. In 1989, he was named Liberal Arts Foundation Centennial Professor, a title he held until his retirement in 2008. Dina Sherzer retired from UT’s Department of French and Italian the same year and is now Professor Emerita.
“My contribution to linguistics has been to analyze language in cultural and social contexts,” Sherzer wrote in The Linguist List. “While at Texas I began many years of fieldwork among the Kuna of Panama. My Kuna research involved close collaboration with individuals who do not read or write but who shared with me their remarkable linguistic and cultural knowledge, expressed in their conversations, stories, myths, chants, and songs.”
His approach to Guna language and culture led him to develop, along with colleagues Greg Urban (Anthropology, formerly UT, now Penn) and Anthony Woodbury (Linguistics, UT), his discourse-centered approach to language and culture. A series of conferences followed, at which researchers presented field recordings of different forms of discourse in Indigenous America. Some of these recordings would eventually become the basis for AILLA, which Sherzer founded along with Woodbury and Mark McFarland (UT Libraries), and for which he served as the first director.
Sherzer’s leadership in digital language archiving was widely known and appreciated. In 2018, he received the first Archiving Award from the Society for the Study of the Indigenous Languages of the Americas (SSILA) for the Kuna Collection of Joel Sherzer, housed at AILLA.
“Sherzer’s recordings of Kuna narratives, curing chants, political oratory, and joking conversation became the basis for a large opus of books and articles that used linguistic, poetic, musical, and ethnographic exegesis and analysis to delve into and honor traditional and contemporary Kuna life,” wrote Woodbury in the SSILA nominating letter. “Through this work, Joel Sherzer became a major linking figure within a historical progression that began with Franz Boas’s vision of the role of language, speaking, and text in the documentation of the indigenous languages and cultures of the Americas; and that has led to the still-developing archive-centered enterprise now called documentary linguistics.”
In the extensive document supporting his nomination, Sherzer’s colleagues, students, and friends described his role in linguistic anthropology as an advocate for the preservation of recorded materials through digitization, as well as a proponent of “archiving as an ethical responsibility,” in the words of co-nominator Aimee Hosemann. Sherzer’s student and former graduate research assistant Lev Michael elaborated: “This collection was intimately connected in [Sherzer]’s mind with the notion of returning the materials he collected to the communities in which he worked, and to the Kuna people more generally, at a point in our discipline’s history . . . when very few people were thinking about materials and communities in this way.”
Physical copies of Sherzer’s collection formed the core of pre-digital Guna-managed collections in Panama. According to AILLA Manager Susan Kung, PhD, Guna Peoples regularly access the digitized materials online via AILLA.
Although Sherzer was primarily known for his work among the Guna on verbal life and verbal art, he also published on gesture, puppetry, Balinese speech play, and Mexican fiestas, according to an obituary published by the UT Department of Anthropology, which is the source for the subsequent two paragraphs.
Sherzer’s major publications include Kuna Ways of Speaking: An Ethnographic Perspective (1983), a groundbreaking ethnography of speaking (often considered the first full-length ethnography of speaking). His Verbal Art in San Blas: Kuna Culture Through Its Discourse (1990) was an exercise in using his discourse-centered approach to language and culture to explore the verbal artistry of a variety of Guna genres of speaking and chanting. The final book in his Guna trilogy, Stories, Myths, Chants, and Songs of the Kuna Indians (2003), further explored verbally artistic ways of speaking, chanting, and singing among the Guna. His last book was Adoring the Saints: Fiestas in Central Mexico (with Yolanda Lastra and Dina Sherzer, 2009).
A summary of Sherzer’s thinking on speech play and verbal art as a critical site for ethnographic investigation was published as Speech Play and Verbal Art (2002). He was also known for his editorial work. The volume he edited with Richard Bauman, Explorations in the Ethnography of Speaking (1974, reissued 1989), was a foundational text in linguistic anthropology. Likewise, Native South American Discourse (edited with Greg Urban, 1986) and Native American Discourse: Poetics and Rhetoric (edited with Anthony Woodbury, 1987) articulated the contours of the “discourse-centered approach to language and culture.” His Translating Native American Verbal Art: Ethnopoetics and Ethnography of Speaking, edited with Kay Sammons (2000), is an important contribution to experiments in and through the translation of verbal art.
A Beloved Colleague and Mentor
“When I was an undergrad, I came across Joel’s books on Kuna verbal art, and fell in love with his descriptions of people and how they used humor in everyday life,” wrote Tulio Bermúdez Mejía, Assistant Professor of Linguistics at the University of Chicago, for whom Sherzer was a dissertation adviser. “The beauty of his work on speech play and verbal art is that it is so theoretically expansive and materially grounded that anyone can feel safe to work in that paradigm. . . . [Tony Woodbury] once wondered whether Joel was able to document so much humor and language play because of the kind of person he was to attract it. I think that couldn’t be closer to the truth. Joel was probably the most down-to-earth academic I ever met, and I hope those of us who knew him can carry that flame forward.”
“Joel was the reason I decided to come to UT Austin for graduate school,” wrote UT Professor of Anthropology Anthony Webster. “He was deeply concerned about linguistics and anthropology and the work that we do. Writing about his friend and fellow linguist and anthropologist Bill Bright, Joel said that ‘too much of anthropology describes people who don’t speak; too much linguistics describes languages without speakers. . . . The voices of actual people in actual social and cultural contexts are always at the forefront of his work.’ The same could be said for Joel. It’s what I admired most about his scholarship—that and its sheer humanity.”
Tony Woodbury wrote fondly of his relationship with Sherzer as a conversation that began in 1979 and continued to unfold over the course of decades. “Sometimes, our animated and excited talk launched from opposite ends of a classroom with a giant table, Joel with his blackboard behind him and I with my blackboard behind me” in the class the two co-taught, Speech Play and Verbal Art. “The conversation continued, through teaching, books, archives, conferences, and just sitting around, until last month, when [UT Professor of Linguistics] Pattie Epps and I visited Joel where he was staying, chattering animated and excitedly, in English with us, in his lovely Spanish with a staff person there, and with asides in French with Dina. I will so so so miss Joel.”
Sherzer had a gift for making people feel seen and cared for. “As a graduate student at UT, I was struggling to keep up with my classes in linguistics and with my obligations at home with my family, community, and being a mom,” wrote former student Hilaria Cruz, Assistant Professor of Comparative Humanities at the University of Louisville. “One day while feeling very sad and despondent, I saw Joel. He greeted me with a beautiful smile and said to me, ‘Hilaria, I am so happy you are here!’ Those simple words reminded me of the real reason I was here, to learn linguistics so that I could work on the Chatino language. My husband and I visited Joel at the nursing home last year. The first thing he did when he saw me was to utter a parallelism, ‘with one lip, with two lips,’ by Bill Bright. What an amazing human being, I will never forget him for a long as I live.”
Former student Emiliana Cruz, Professor of Anthropology at CIESAS–Mexico, shared a particularly endearing story about the Sherzers, who showed up at her café in Oaxaca on a December day in 2001 right after the water had been shut off. In spite of this inauspicious first visit, they became regulars there. Upon hearing the news of Joel Sherzer’s passing, Cruz wrote, her sadness was tempered with deep appreciation: “When I received the news that Joel had died, I was arriving at my village. . . There awoke in me an enthusiasm for life, for who I am and what I do. It is not by chance that I met Joel; extroverted and adventurous people like ourselves had to encounter each other.” (Translated from the original Spanish.)
“Joel and I started out together as fellow graduate students in Dell Hymes’s first graduate course at Penn, the Ethnography of Symbolic Forms,” recalled anthropologist Richard Bauman (Professor Emeritus, Indiana University). The two ended up at UT Austin, where they joined forces to build the program in linguistic anthropology. “Not only was Joel a wonderful partner as co-author, but he was an equally generous and willing colleague in the backstage work of organizing conferences, constructing meeting sessions, developing curriculum, mentoring graduate students, and all the other kinds of ventures we undertook together.”
The Congreso General de la Comarca Gunayala, the governing body of Guna Peoples in Panama, posted a tribute to Sherzer on their Facebook page, calling him “a great friend of our people.” Using his Guna nickname, Sigabula (bearded one), the text reads in part, “Without doubt, Joel Sigabula was a great collaborator. He coordinated support for the recording of songs and he shared the recordings with us; thanks to him, [we] learned stories in the voices of well-known people, which [we] would never have been able to hear, but, through the magic of the tape recorder, are now available to us. Our eternal gratitude to our friend.” (Translated from the original Spanish.)
AILLA: Sherzer’s Vision and Legacy
The Archive of the Indigenous Languages of Latin America, or AILLA, is one of Sherzer’s most significant legacies. At this writing, the archive represents some 400 different Indigenous languages spoken in Latin America. “This is about 70 percent of all Indigenous languages that we know about between the Rio Bravo and Tierra del Fuego,” said Ryan Sullivant, PhD, AILLA’s Language Data Curator.
“Joel Sherzer was motived to find a way for linguists and anthropologists to easily share their primary research data, that is, the recordings, the notes, the drawings, the photographs that they created and that they based their academic research on,” said AILLA Manager Kung. “He realized that the internet was a way to democratize access to these recordings, as well as to provide access to many more recordings. What’s more, he was tireless in advocating for AILLA, holding regular fundraisers to grow the endowment, and talking about AILLA to friends, colleagues, and basically everyone he met. AILLA would not be the internationally recognized digital archive that it is today if he hadn’t dedicated his post-retirement life to ensuring its success and its enduring legacy.”
“Joel Sherzer—professor, benefactor, and mentor of many generations of linguistic anthropologists—will live on through his vast legacy,” said Adela Pineda Franco, director of the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies (LLILAS). “His unremitting support to the students of Indigenous languages, his commitment to the Center for the Study of the Indigenous Languages of Latin America (CILLA), and his pledge to the Archive of the Indigenous Languages of Latin America, which he founded, are the pillars of his legacy. We will be forever grateful.”
Wikaliler Daniel Smith, PhD, Guna linguist, former student of Sherzer’s, and instructor at Valencia College, wrote that much archival work on Indigenous languages in Panama is “a direct result” of Sherzer’s efforts in digital archiving. “The creation of physical and digital repositories of those collections has been instrumental in responding to the Guna community’s interest in the accessibility of the materials now being used in different contexts by community members,” Smith said. Smith has contributed the Guna Collection of Wikaliler Daniel Smith to AILLA.
The sounds of speech and song, word play, and humor were central to Joel Sherzer’s scholarship. That these were the interests of a kind man with a warm heart is not a coincidence. “Joel taught me a profound lesson, and it was that one should have a life—outside of academia, one should find and do things that gave one joy,” wrote Tony Webster. “I think of Joel as someone who found a great deal of joy in life, and who also brought a great deal of joy. It was the possibility of joy in life that was the most important lesson I learned from Joel.”
The Departments of Anthropology and Linguistics, as well as LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections, plan to hold a memorial service for Joel Sherzer during the spring semester of 2023. Written tributes are being collected by AILLA on Sherzer’s memorial page. Dina Sherzer requests that in lieu of flowers or cards, please make a donation to the Archive of the Indigenous Languages of Latin America (AILLA) here: https://give.utexas.edu/?menu=OGPLAAR. Those who wish to donate by check should follow the instructions here.
Testimonials on AILLA’s Joel F. Sherzer public memorial page are full of loving and humorous anecdotes about a man who was curious, generous, welcoming, and engaged. Friends, colleagues, and former students are encouraged to add their own recollections to this page.
The portions of this obituary contributed by the UT Department of Anthropology, noted above, were written by Anthony Webster. For more information, please contact Susanna Sharpe, LLILAS Benson Communications Coordinator.