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Henk van Riemsdijk

A linguistic journey

Henk van Riemsdijk was born in 1948 in The Hague, The Netherlands. At a young age, he moved with his Dutch family to Zurich, Switzerland, where he discovered and experienced the rich diversity of human language: Dutch at home, High German in school, and Swiss German in the streets. Furthermore, Switzerland’s multilingual environment gave him the opportunity to learn the other official languages of the country: French and Italian. In light of this rich multilingual experience, it comes as no surprise that Henk got interested in the study of human language. He decided to move to Paris, where he became a student of linguistics at the university of Paris (Vincennes) in the revolutionary late 1960s. It was here that Henk got acquainted with the formal study of human language, more specifically generative grammar. After his studies in Paris, Henk moved to the University of Amsterdam, where he obtained a MA-degree in Linguistics (1972; cum laude), became assistant professor (1972), and wrote his PhD thesis (1978; cum laude), which was published by Peter de Ridder Press (later by Foris Publications and by Mouton de Gruyter) with the title A Case Study in Syntactic Markedness: The Binding Nature of Prepositional Phrases. This study is a true landmark in the formal-linguistic study of prepositional phrases and has been an important source of inspiration for research on prepositional syntax ever since. In 1981, Henk became Full professor in the Department of Languages and Literature at Tilburg University in The Netherlands, where he acted among others as Dean (1983-1985; 2000-2003) and Vice-Dean (1989-1991) of the School of Humanities. In 2011, he became Honorary member of the Linguistic Society of America, and in 2012, he received Honorary Doctorates from the University of Bucharest and the University of Szeged.

Advancing the study of human language

Promoting and advancing the study of the human language faculty has always been an important mission for Henk. He tried to realize this in various ways, including the organization of numerous workshops, conferences, and summer schools, his lecturing at universities all over the world (e.g. Austria, Brazil, China, Greece, Hungary, Japan, Russia, US), his scientific-advisory role at various levels such as European research committees, research institutes, scientific journals, and linguistics societies, his co-authorship of textbooks for academic education, including Introduction to the Theory of Grammar (The MIT Press, 1986), his (co-)supervision of 29 dissertations, and last but not least, the publication of over 100 scientific articles and the (co-)editorship of almost 30 books.

With his organizational skills, Henk was a driving force behind numerous scientific activities and projects in Europe and worldwide, including the foundation of the linguistics society GLOW (Generative Linguistics in the Old World), the international journal The Linguistic Review and the book series Studies in Generative Grammar (Mouton de Gruyter), Comprehensive Grammar Resources (Amsterdam University Press), and the Wiley-Blackwell Companions to Linguistics.

Contributions to the study of language

A broad perspective on the fundamental study of language, with an eye towards its uniformity and diversity, characterizes Henk’s research contributions to the field of theoretical linguistics, work for which he is widely recognized among linguists worldwide. This broad perspective on grammar is clear from his contributions to the cross-linguistic (including dialectal) study of natural languages, his search for parallelism in phonological and syntactic representations, and his quest for abstract fundamental principles of human language. Besides his seminal work on the syntax of prepositional phrases, he has worked on many other research topics including free relatives, transitive adjectives, clausal pied piping, verb (projection) raising, parasitic gaps, split topicalization, left dislocation, adjacency phenomena, semi-lexical categories, Case, and silent categories.

More information about Henk, including a list of his major publications, can be found here.

Mission continued: The Van Riemsdijk Foundation

In May 2021, Henk established The Van Riemsdijk Foundation. Its mission is to advance the study of the human language faculty in search of a deeper understanding of this fundamental property of human beings. In a 2016 interview for the journal Isogloss, Henk sketched his vision for the scientific study of language in the following decades:

“I believe that a broad (as opposed to narrow) interpretation of what syntax (and grammar more generally) is about should regain its full interest. That students and researchers should be encouraged to tackle difficult analytical problems and curious generalizations, study them from as many angles as possible, in particular study their similarities and differences in broad varieties of languages, both at the micro-and macro-level, and wherever possible formulate hypotheses on the fundamental abstract principles that account for them.”

In the spirit of Henk’s linguistic enterprise, The Van Riemsdijk Foundation aims to continue his mission to advance the study of the human language faculty in search of a deeper understanding of this fundamental property of human beings. Inspired by Henk’s multifaceted career as a researcher, educator, advisor and research organizer, we believe this mission should be a joint linguistic enterprise.