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Gérard Diffloth (1939-2023)

Updated: Oct 9, 2023

by Lye Tuck-Po
31 August 2023

A few days ago, I found out that Gérard Diffloth passed away just two weeks ago.
 
Gérard Diffloth (1939-2023)

It is with deep sadness that we inform you of the passing of Gérard Diffloth at 7:30am on August 14, 2023 in Surin, Thailand. We mourn the loss of a great mind and departure of a special friend, but share in the celebration of his life. (https://icaal.net/icaal-11-2023-online/)

 
I have so many wonderful memories of Gérard.
I first met him in 1994. I was a second-year M.A. student at the University of Hawai`i, when Gérard stopped by to give a seminar at the East-West Center. I was thrilled to hear the news that he was in town. Funny how memories work: I don't remember the subject of his talk (the linguistics largely passed me by) but I do remember how he looked in that classroom and that he instantly agreed to have lunch with me. He was on his way to Southeast Asia. He had former students in Hawai`i then (Judy Ledgerwood, James Collins, etc.), but I'll never forget that he spent time with me and chatted about Orang Asli. He was keen to return to fieldwork in Malaysia, he said, and wanted contact details for his old field assistant Tony Williams-Hunt. Which I gave him via a detour to my dorm room. And I recall my rising sense of panic for what he was about to see in my room — books, clothes, littering everywhere but for a trail from the door to the desk. I apologised in advance but Gérard didn't "seem" to notice. He took down Tony's contact details, and that was that for the next ten years.

 
"Living languages, with or without a tradition of writing, are treasure-houses of concepts transmitted from past generations"
Gérard Diffloth, Prehistory of the Kuay words for "charcoal" and "iron", 2011
 

We did not keep in touch and he barely remembered our previous encounter. In the early 2000s, I suppose Jim Collins brought him to Malaysia for another quick jaunt. We quickly agreed to make a field trip. I took him to visit the Batek and their neighbours the Semaq Briʔ. I suppose I got to know him a bit more on that trip. I learnt about "expressives," which he had largely pioneered for Aslian studies. He let me look at his notebook and copy down some transcriptions. That's when I saw how a historical linguist like him goes about collecting data for analysis. The Batek were kind to him and called him bakɛs (old man). Then when we got back to Kuala Lumpur, there were more relaxed conversations over dinner.
Gérard Diffloth and his wife Som (far left) surrounded by Batek men, 2004

 
​...linguistic reconstructions have some important advantages over archaeological finds: they offer histories that cover the entire spectrum of human activities, material as well as non-material; they also provide historical sequences, detailed evidence of contacts, and occasional scenarios of radical replacements; on the other hand, the dates they provide are generally vague, and at best relative.
Gérard Diffloth, Prehistory of the Kuay words for "charcoal" and "iron", 2011
 

​In the next few years, Gérard (and other linguists like Niclas Burenhult and Geoffrey Benjamin) was a staple of my anthropological life. There was a conference in Pattani on Southern Thailand, which led for us to a field visit to Maniq of Trang. Then later, I got a grant to do some fieldwork in Cambodia, and he (Gérard) took me to visit their neighbours the Kuay. By now (mid-2000s) he was settled in Siem Reap with his wife Som. He gave me some great tips for working with Khmer people and getting into their language. What you'll hear in the field, he said, is very different from standard Khmer coming from, say, Phnom Penh. The best way to understand people is to listen and just learn the language in the field. I did that, and it was certainly much easier.
Working with a Maniq man, Thailand, ....

...and with a Kuay man, Cambodia

How did Gérard do his fieldwork and what was it about him that was so endearing? I don't know the answers. I saw him arrive in a village, say, a Kuay village, look up his old acquaintances, bring out his ethnobiological collection of cut-out pictures, and proceed to draw up a wordlist. I know there are problems with this method but it worked for Gérard. People would instantly stop what they were doing and chime in with their knowledge. Yes, he didn't stop to confirm; yes, he didn't collect contextual utterings; yes, he never bothered with gender distinctions; yes, yes... but he didn't need them. The result was a fabulous collection of Austroasiatic terms that was arranged as a database in his Mac computer, which he was writing up.
As for this anthropologist, I know I've lost a friend.

Addendum: Diffloth's Aslian writings (as of 2001) are listed here.
Gerard Diffloth at Angkor, Cambodia, photographed by Tony Williams-Hunt in 2007 @ Tony Williams-Hunt

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pbiongriffin
Sep 02, 2023

Thanks for the wonderful obit and review. I didn't know Gerard well, but occasionally met with him concerning things Cambodian. They don't make them like him anymore.

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tplye2
Sep 02, 2023
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No, they don't.

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