Nicolas Ruwet


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Nicolas Ruwet passed away yesterday (November 15, 2001) in France at the age of 68.

Nicolas had a passion for music and poetry, and he was deeply concerned with history and linguistics. He was heavily influenced early in his linguistic career by Roman Jakobson, and later by Noam Chomsky, and Ruwet came to be central to the development of generative grammar in France and in Europe more generally, through his work at the Université de Paris VIII, first at Vincennes, later St. Denis. Much of his early influence came through his book Introduction à la grammaire générative, which was published in 1967, just before the events of 1968 in Paris. Over the following three decades he published a number of collections of essays on linguistics and aesthetics as well as translations. He had recently retired from the Université de Paris VIII (St. Denis).

[posted on Linguist, November 16, 2001]

John A. Goldsmith

Department of Linguistics, The University of Chicago

Chez Nicolas


Smoking always, cropped black hair, slight

     subtle, paper skin

one could almost take him for frail

     quiet voice

but for the burning mind, deep

     happy to be laughed with

français à la puissance treize, Gitanes


climbing to his five floors up eyrie

     see through anyone

rising through literatures of idea


stacks of books, magazines, journals, poems

     the everyone he knew, thought with,

la langue entière, his book the only one

     to show to Nabokov, Baudelaire, say * look!

His friend Roman says once: good on language, better

     on poetry, best on cinema

higher to where air grows rarified, purest

     solitude, clearest eyes

onlier still than we can remember him

     funny kind light





Sete Lagoas


I just saw your note on Nicolas; I am devastated.

I knew and befriended him back in Austin, in 73/4 and again, in Ottawa, in 1980/81, and admired him very much, not least because he was one of the few ones early on who was able to pursue both musical and linguistic analysis side by side.

As well, what I remember is that his linguistic work struck me at the time for its attention to detail and exploration of ramifications: he would apply, as faithfully as possible, some currently fashionable, or recently propunded principle to a set of carefully chosen constructions and catalogue all the ways the consequences ran afoul of the facts - was instructive and enjoyable.

Apart from all that, he was kind, smart, warm, an entertaining and generous host and friend - knowing that I was alone in Ottawa at the time, and working at something of an academic wasteland, he invited me over often and we drank many a bottle of Toso Viejo, which he bought by the case ("j'ai trouve un vin chileen buvable et pas cher...").

Any information as to cause, circumstance? Had he been ill? 68 is terribly young (or do I just feel that much closer to it?).


Michael Szamosi

I first met Nicolas when he was a visiting scholar at MIT in 1966 or 67.  He was living in Roman Jakobson's house and one time  a bunch of us (including Haj Ross) went there after a post-colloquium.  He was interested in everything; he had a wry sense of humor, and was sharp as a tack, but was also very considerate.  We renewed our acquaintance in 1973 when Yuki and I went to Paris for a conference, and kept in touch frequently. .

We had a couple of memorable visits to his and Gyoko's summer home in Karuizawa, Japan.  One evening (I think it was 1992) there was a festival and an old family retainer of Gyoko's decided that we should all visit "backstage" at the local Shinto shrine.  There was tons of food and delicious cold sake;  all of our faces grew red.  Gyoko said that it was probably the first time that a "gaijin" had been in the inner sanctum of that shrine.  The next year Nicolas and I were decked out in happi coats and helped to carry the portable shrine from place to place, again eating lots of food and drinking large quantities of sake.  It was a chance to participate in a culture, and Nicolas revelled in the experience.

Nicolas was one of only two people from my past who still called me Suz.  Now there's only one.

Susan Fischer


When I got the news, I was moved, very moved. I hope there can be some way that others can add to your brief tribute. Obviously, Nicolas is not the first eminently worthy linguist of my generation to pass away. In fact, some good friends of mine, barely known in the field, have preceded him, in particular the three to whom I dedicated my 1985 book.

But I am moved, very moved, and I deeply appreciate your brief tribute.

Nicolas loved life, the highest tribute one can pay I am tempted to say. When I once asked him at a lunch chez Ann Banfield et moi in Paris in 69-70, whether, discovering to my embarassment that I had no wine and at 1:30 pm no way (then) to procure it, whether we could drink something like Vermouth with Ann's (no doubt superb) lunch, his response:

"Ce serait ignoble."

Joe Emonds

Je suis linguiste et philosophe de profession. Au début de ma carrière scientifique, j'étais très influencée par l'oeuvre de Nicolas Ruwet, qui s'appelle "Grammaire des insultes et autres études". N'étant pas francophone, j'étais spécialement fascinée par la clarté de l'expresssion de cet auteur de la grammaire transformationnelle, qui était autrefois un de mes domaines de recherche préférés. Je lisais surtout le premier chapitre de ce livre maintes fois, je ne sais pas pourquoi, mais la manière de traiter des problèmes de Nicolas Ruwet me semblait très proche à moi.


Raija Solatie de Finlande

Il y a longtemps que j'ai perdu N. Ruwet de vue. Mais il fut, grâce à R. Barthes, celui dont les travaux ont orienté les miens dans le domaine de la poésie après Jakobson. C'est certainement une grande perte,

A. Bounfour INALCO, Paris

My first clear recollection of Nicolas is a dinner I was invited to at his and Gyoko's apartment in Paris in January of 1979, at the time of a syntax meeting at Vincennes. Anne Banfield was there, and Ferenc Kiefer, Paul Hirschbuhler, and several other linguists. I was zonked well past jetlag, and learned that night of the miraculous restorative powers of French red wine: after several glasses, I began to feel human again. It was a wonderful dinner, and I'll always retain a fond memory of it, and Gyoko's and Nicolas's powers as hosts.

It was around that time that Nicolas began to write subversive linguistics, too. He was beginning to discover that the process of example-creation in generative syntax was deep and difficult, and that generative grammarians had hidden this fact from themselves. They -- we -- were manipulating our theory with the subconscious choice of examples. Perhaps Nicolas would not have put it quite that way -- perhaps he would have -- but that was part of the message. We had always thought that coming up with examples was non-theoretical: you just tilt your head to the side, and out would come an example: Passive ...then Raising to object ... then Passive again; now let's test to see if you can raise that NP to a higher subject position. It was a purely mechanical operation. This was the late Sixties view of syntax, and it had all the charm of the Great Clockmaker view of the physical world, the one that Newton and company had introduced in physics in the 17th century. And Nicolas had bought into that earlier on -- as in his 1967 book, tied closely to Noam's Aspects (1965), and then in Nicolas' next set of essays, including the influential work on raising and on en-placement in French.

But sometime in the mid 70s things began to shift for Nicolas, I think, and he became less and less satisfied with that style of grammar writing. In some ways this shift was like the shifts that Jim McCawley, Paul Postal, Haj Ross, and George Lakoff had undergone, maybe a few years earlier, but Nicolas's was distinctively his own. He would take a construction (like Equi) and knead it: push it and squeeze it, and see how it reacted. This work influenced me enormously. I felt that it was impossible to read a mainstream generative paper in syntax after that and not think that the subtleties had all been missed.

Geoff Huck encouraged Nicolas and me to work on an English-language edition of Nicolas's papers in the mid 1980s, around the time that Nicolas and Gyoko spent a quarter visiting us in Chicago; this was in late 1985 or early 1986. We worked on five papers together, translating them and reworking them into a book that held its own in English. We worked forever on a title. I suggested to him that it could be called Après Mure Réflection: Upon Mature Reflection, but of course that's awfully presumptuous, and Nicolas nixed that. We eventually settled on Syntax and Human Experience. The word "experience" had that phenomenological suggestiveness that we wanted: a touch of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty.

Nicolas was a free thinker in linguistics, and I respected him enormously for that. He was also a warm human being, and I will miss him and his friendship a great deal.

John Goldsmith

Dear Professor Goldsmith,

This is sad news indeed. I knew him from his many visits to our nyu linguistics group in new york in the 70s. we had dinners together. i was a great admirer of his work and we renewed contact in the 80s. One of my best doctoral students Sanjukta Ghosh is basing her entire outlook on his Syntax and Human Experience....


probal dasgupta

professor of applied linguistics

university of hyderabad hyderabad 500 046 , india

Somewhat removed from the world of French linguistics, I was stunned and saddened to learn of the passing of Nicolas Ruwet, someone I read with great interest and later got to know in the late 1970s and 80s. My field was 19th-century French literature, and at a time when literary criticism started to swerve away from the linguistic turn, I always found Nicolas' reflections on French poetry, its images, and its rhythms insightful and rewarding. I had the opportunity to invite him to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where, I still remember, he gave a memorable talk on the Jakobson/Levi Strauss reading of a Baudelaire sonnet. Like others, my memories of him in Paris include stacks of books, stacks of papers, stacks of empty cigarette boxes, animated dinners, and an extraordinarily warm and hospitable heart. Though it has been years since I last saw him, I am struck by how moved I am by his loss.
Sima Godfrey
Director, Institute for European Studies
University of British Columbia
#180, 1855 West Mall,
VANCOUVER, B.C., Canada V6T 1Z2

Sans jamais avoir rencontré mon illustre compatriote d'une façon autre que fugace - étudiant, j'ai eu une seule fois le bonheur d'assister à un exposé oral présenté à la Katholieke Universiteit Leuven -, je reconnaîtrai volontiers que la plupart des publications relativement récentes de Nicolas Ruwet (disons, celles qu'il a réalisées à partir des années quatre-vingts) m'ont profondément marqué. L'étude qui m'a fasciné le plus, et dont j'ai fait une partie intégrante de mon enseignement en linguistique française à l'Université de Tasmanie, est celle qu'il a fait paraître d'une façon peut-être un peu précipitée dans les Cahiers de grammaire (Toulouse) en 1984; le titre en était "Je veux partir / *Je veux que je parte". Une traduction anglaise remaniée et mise à jour figure dans Syntax and Human Experience, recueil d'articles en version anglaise dû à John Goldsmith, qui m'a aimablement ouvert les colonnes de son site web (si je peux m'exprimer de la sorte...). Un compte rendu critique de ce recueil a été publié dans la Revue canadienne de linguistique / Canadian Journal of Linguistics (vol. 39, 1994, pp. 225-234; voir aussi l'erratum, p. 376). J'y exprime ma profonde admiration pour la pensée du regretté Nicolas Ruwet, et je n'ai aucun doute que les progrès réalisés en linguistique française grâce à ses travaux sont des plus remarquables.

Nicolas Ruwet nous manquera... à nous tous. Requiescat in pace.

Bert Peeters
School of English, Journalism & European Languages
University of Tasmania
GPO Box 252-82
Hobart TAS 7001


C'est avec très grande tristesse que j'ai appris le décès de Nicolas. Me sont revenues en mémoire ces longues discussions passionnées où il pétrissait les données, comme tu dis si bien John, avec comme résultat des découvertes révélatrices de propriétés profondes. Et quelle plume pour faire saisir les subtilités qu’il exposait!

 Nicolas n'était pas qu'un linguiste remarquable de rigueur et avec un sens merveilleux des données. C'était aussi un homme d'une culture immense, qui avait un soucis d'esthétisme dans tout ce qu'il entreprenait. C'est un des deux individus que j'ai toujours en tête comme modèle quand j'écris. Je te salue à toutes volées, mon cher Nicolas. Une certaine tristesse m'habitera à chaque fois que j'écrirai désormais, en même temps que le plaisir ravivé de t'avoir connu.

 Denis Bouchard

J’ai rencontré le nom de Nicolas Ruwet pour la première fois à Paris, en juin 1968, peu de temps après les fameux “événements”. C’est alors que j’ai lu son Introduction à la grammaire générative, qui venait de paraître. Ce livre m’a profondément marqué à l’époque, d’abord par la clarté de l’exposition et le souci d’illustrer les idées par des exemples français, chose encore rare en ce temps-là. Il est vrai que plus tard, comme lui-même d’ailleurs, je me suis éloigné du générativisme, qui devenait de plus en plus abstrait et me paraissait sans rapport direct avec les réalités de la langue. J’ai eu l’occasion plus tard de participer à son séminaire et je l’y ai entendu parler avec une certaine amertume de l’attitude des générativistes envers lui, qu’il accusait de l’”avoir enterré” depuis longtemps. Sa linguistique à lui, bien ancrée dans la tradition empirique europénne, ne se contentait pas de spéculations, sans réelle assise dans la langue. J’ai souvent grimpé les six étages qui mènent à son appartement, et plaisanté sur sa bibliothèque toujours recouverte de papiers, parce que les travaux d’aménagement n’avaient jamais l’air de se terminer. Je me souviens aussi d’un excellent exposé qu’il a fait à Tel-Aviv, à mon séminaire de syntaxe, où nous avions à coeur de discuter avec les étudiants les plus récents travaux en linguistique française, domaine auquel il a apporté une contribution de grande valeur, par sa clarté et l’originalité de sa pensée. Cela a aussi été pour lui et pour Gyoko, une occasion de participer, en terre sainte,  à un “séder” de Pâque”, avec ma famille et celle de ma belle-soeur. Avec Nicolas, on pouvait discuter de tout, tellement vaste était sa culture, tellement diversifiées ses lectures, tellement grande aussi son ouverture d’esprit. Il laisse un grand vide dans notre génération de linguistes. Il manquera à ses amis.

David Gaatone


Pagona Mitsaina 

12 Charilaou Trikoupi str.

12244 Aegaleo



Athens, January 8,2002

I would like to express the following thoughts in commemoration of Professor Nicolas Ruwet. I had the chance to meet him at the University of Paris VIII, where he was my supervisor for the diplomas of D.E.A. and Doctorat. He was an inspired linguist, a model of teacher and an excellent man. 

He was equipped with a great theoretical formation that he combined with fine intuitions about the linguistic facts. He had a great respect about those facts and never pushed them to fit into a theory. He didn't like easy and quick answers. He was often sceptic and not afraid of leaving questions unresolved if he felt that they required further treatment.

 His teaching was fascinating. He didn't just teach isolated grammatical phenomena or a piece of linguistic theory. He taught how to ask questions about the language and the way to treat them. He had the capacity departing from concrete and individuated questions to arrive at general and important ones. He didn't limit himself at teaching linguistics, but he also taught the language, the mind, life, our world. 

He was a friend with his students and supported them in their work and their life. He always assisted them with their problems and their difficulties and his interest was pure and real.

And this great linguist and teacher was a modest, accessible and polite man without egoism, without arrogance. Maybe because he was aware of his limits as a human being. He was also a man of great honesty and integrity.

He was an adorable person and an unforgettable professor. I will always remember, honour and think of him with gratitude.

Yours sincerely,

Pagona Mitsaina