January 14, 2003

Obituary: Kostas Kazazis, 1934-2002

Linguist Kostas Kazazis, a 35-year staple at the University whose flair for humor and discussion peppered his lifelong quest to acquire languages and understand the influences society has on them, died of cardiac arrest December 23 at 68.

Though Kazazis was an authority on Greek and Balkan linguistics, he also had a passion for learning new languages, mastering Afrikaans, Albanian, and Estonian well enough to teach classes on them at the University.

"The house is cluttered with all sorts of aids to help learn languages: tapes, newspapers and cereal boxes--anything he could use that had the language on them," said his wife, Christina von Nolcken, an associate English professor in the College.

"He was very into the nitty-gritty of language; he got his hands dirty with it, messing around with the actual minutiae of language. While many colleges were working with theory, to him the language came first," von Nolcken said.

Born in Athens, Greece, Kazazis studied political science at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, where he began a lifetime of learning new languages.

Kazazis moved to the United States; he completed a master's degree in political science at the University of Kansas in 1959. He then began formal studies as a linguist at Indiana University. He joined the University of Chicago faculty in 1965.

Kazazis co-authored a grammar book for modern Greek, and is known in his field for his identification and extensive research into diglossia, or the rift between the vernacular and formal language, which has also been identified in Arabic.

Here at the University, Kazazis had a reputation for using his personality to make the languages he taught come alive. On one occasion, Kazazis held class in the hospital room of a recovering student.

"When I was well enough to work he came to the hospital so we could continue to have class," said Victor Friedman, now the chair of the University's Slavic department. "He had a great sense of humor and was always joking. He was a wonderful teacher."

While Kazazis maintained his knowledge of Greek politics and roots--he had a home in Greece which he visited each year--he was not a nationalist. Critical of the Greek government, Kazazis championed the rights of minorities.

Friedman recalls a convention on Macedonian that Kazazis attended, where a crowd of pro-Greek protestors were preparing to demonstrate. After a speech criticizing Greece, Kazazis spent the intermission speaking with the would-be protestors and convinced them not to be disruptive.

"He would engage people in discussing these things," Friedman said. "That's what made him a great teacher."

In addition to his wife, Kazasis is survived by his two daughters, Marina Geaslin and Silvia Maki, as well as five grandchildren.

The Department of Linguistics is planning a memorial service for later this year and a scholarship fund in his memory.