‘Incredibly vibrant’: UC Berkeley linguist Geoffrey Nunberg dies at 75

Photo of Geoffrey Nunberg
Nicole Katan/Courtesy
Geoffrey Nunberg had the ability to explain complex subjects, including linguistics, in ways that were accessible to everyone, which translated well to his time on NPR’s 'Fresh Air.'

Far-reaching NPR linguist and adjunct UC Berkeley professor Geoffrey Nunberg died Aug. 11 at the age of 75.

To many, Nunberg was a rare type of person who found joy in listening to others and exploring connections between language and politics. To his daughter, Sophie Nunberg, he was a clog-wearing father who gave her “embarrassment tickets” for doing chores and who later inspired her to pursue language and writing.

“If he was embarrassing me in public, I was allowed to dole out an embarrassment ticket, and usually that was because he liked to like dance and sing, and I was mortified as like a tween,” Nunberg said. “At the time it was so harrowing and awful — you’re like, ‘why are you singing Guys and Dolls or Bob Dylan in your clogs?’”

Though Geoffrey’s unbridled passion for linguistics influenced Sophie from an early age, she came to realize that he knew everything about anything, from the works of countless poets and authors to the reason why Scotland is not officially a country. As she described it, he was her “own personal Google.”

This fascination with countless facets of knowledge was one of the reasons he decided to become an adjunct professor at UC Berkeley’s School of Information, according to his sister, Barbara Nunberg. Geoffrey co-taught alongside Paul Duguid, who recommended him for the position after working as his colleague at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center.

“For me, and I hope for him too, it was very engaging,” Duguid said. “Information, as he would always say, is something of a nebulous subject, but we were able to try to give it shape, working back and forth together.”

Geoffrey’s ability to explain subjects, including linguistics, in a way that was accessible to everyone translated well to his time on NPR’s “Fresh Air.”

Ben Zimmer, a language columnist for the Wall Street Journal, said Geoffrey introduced a lot of people to linguistics through his “Fresh Air” segment. Geoffrey encouraged people to think about language in a serious way by relating it to current issues, something he did until his death.

Zimmer said Geoffrey continued to “noodle,” or kick ideas around with his particular wit and humor, even during their last phone call together.

“He wanted to talk about the language of the pandemic, he was interested in sort of the language of race with the Black Lives Matter protests being in full swing, so he still wanted to keep actively engaged with these issues, even though his health was failing him,” Zimmer said. “His mind was always incredibly vibrant, all the way to the end.”

Geoffrey is survived by his wife, daughter, sister and the impact of his ever-inquisitive mind.

Contact Veronica Roseborough at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @v_roseborough.