Center for the Study of Communication and Society

Michael Silverstein (1945–2020)

Michael Silverstein (1945–2020), Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor of Anthropology, of Linguistics, and of Psychology and in the Committee on Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities, founded the Center for the Study of Communication and Society in 2004, and served as its director until his death on July 17, 2020. Mr. Silverstein joined the Department of Anthropology in 1971 as an Associate Professor after being a Junior Fellow in the Society of Fellows at Harvard and a visiting assistant professor at the University of Chicago in 1970. For near a half century at the University of Chicago, he produced a body of work that fundamentally changed the place of linguistics in the field, with foundational contributions to the understanding of language structure, sociolinguistics, and semiotics, as well as the history of linguistics and anthropology. His fieldwork included research in the Pacific Northwest on Chinookan languages, among the Worora and Northern Kimberley Aboriginal societies in Australia, and on a wide range of issues related to U.S. society and political culture.

Silverstein’s erudition, sense of humor, love of scholarship, of teaching, of conversation and substantive debate is legendary and helped establish the intellectual strength of the University of Chicago in all the many different fields he was part of. His Language in Culture lectures alone have trained generations of scholars to think differently about semiotics and communication, providing a new theoretical language for understanding how speech and other semiotic media function dynamically, for how meaning is structured and achieved in discursive practice, and of the interactional grounding of culture and cognition. Silverstein was a prolific writer of essays, articles, and reviews, providing professional service across the University of Chicago and to seven professional societies (including serving as the founding Vice President and then President of the Society of Linguistic Anthropology). He served on the editorial boards of American AnthropologistLaw and Social InquiryEthnosFunctions of Language, and the Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, among others. His books include Whitney on Language, Natural Histories of Discourse (with Greg Urban), Talking Politics, and Creatures of Politics (with Michael Lempert). (For a library of Silverstein’s works, please click here.)

Silverstein’s list of academic honors includes being named a MacArthur Fellow in 1982. He held a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1979, was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1991, and to the American Philosophical Society in 2008. Silverstein received the Faculty Award for Excellence in Graduate Teaching at the University of Chicago in 2000 and gave the 47th Nora and Edward Ryerson Lecture in 2019 in recognition of his lasting contribution to the intellectual life of the University of Chicago. In 2014, he received the highest award offered by the American Anthropology Association – The Franz Boas Award for Exemplary Service to Anthropology.

To honor his legacy, the Michael Silverstein Memorial Scholarship Fund has been created. The fund Fund is devoted to expanding access to anthropology at the University of Chicago and diversifying the scholarship within it. To donate, please click here.