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Alan Kaye in United Arab Emirates

Alan Kaye Dies of Cancer

‘Indiana Jones of Linguistics’ stricken while researching abroad

June 6, 2007

By Mimi Ko Cruz

Alan S. Kaye, Cal State Fullerton professor of English, comparative literature and linguistics, died May 31. He was 63.

Kaye was diagnosed with bone cancer on May 1 in the United Arab Emirates, where he had been on a research leave. His 28-year-old son, Jeremy, traveled to that country, where Kaye was undergoing radiation therapy, and brought him back home to Fullerton on May 22. The professor told his son that the 30-hour journey would be the “most important of his life.”

“His cancer was the most aggressive kind that one can have, and it had already metastasized, affecting many of his major organs,” Jeremy Kaye said.  “We did, however, have some hope during his final days. My father had begun chemotherapy treatment and he was able to regain some of his mobility. His doctor called him a fighter to the last. But, the chemotherapy left him open to infection, and he got pneumonia, which proved too much for his compromised immune system.”

He said his father “absolutely loved Fullerton and the years he spent at
CSUF. He met innumerable faculty and students who meant more to him than I can say.”

Thomas P. Klammer, dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, called Kaye irreplaceable and his knowledge of the Semitic languages legendary.

“I worked with Alan for more than 35 years,” Klammer said. “We both started at CSUF in the fall of 1971. We missed him while he was on leave, though he would occasionally send e-mail and pictures. Of course, we could not anticipate that his return would not be to his beloved research and teaching, but only to a valiant fight for his life.”

Cal State Fullerton “will not be the same without Alan, and the field of linguistics will not replace him,” Klammer added. “Alan studied many aspects of linguistics and many different languages, but his real specialty was the peripheral dialects of Arabic —Arabic as spoken in remote locations, far from the capitals of learning and sophistication in the Arab-speaking world. He was a master at interviewing informants whose speech most standard Arabic speakers would not be able to understand. His field trips included numerous adventures and close brushes with danger. His stories of his field research in out-of-the-way locations in Africa and the Middle East conveyed to his admiring students an impression of Alan as something of an Indiana Jones of linguistics.”

Kaye, who was born in Los Angeles on March 2, 1944, received his bachelor’s degree in Semitic linguistics in 1965 from UCLA and his master’s degree (1968) and Ph.D. (1971) in linguistics from UC Berkeley.

He taught most of the graduate and undergraduate language and linguistics courses that CSUF offers, and he was especially proud of having developed Linguistics 106, the introductory language course, and Linguistics 351, the introductory course on phonetics and phonology, said Joseph Sawicki, chair of the Department of English, Comparative Literature, and Linguistics. 

“Alan was one of our most active researchers, with an international reputation in language and linguistics, having published nearly 20 books, more than 100 articles and over 450 notes, squibs, and book reviews,” Sawicki said. “His primary research interests focused on Near Eastern, Asian and African languages, and he made frequent trips to areas of the world where he did field work in these languages.”

Kaye delivered numerous lectures and conducted research in scores of countries worldwide. Most recently, he lectured at King Saud University in Saudi Arabia and the University of Goteborg in Sweden. He also served as an honorary research fellow at LaTrobe University’s Institute of Advanced Study in Australia, and he was on a two-year leave, teaching and lecturing at the United Arab Emirates University.

He received many grants, including two Fulbright Scholar awards, and he was a member of the editorial boards of three monograph series and 12 journals, including English Today, Languages of the World, Multilingua, and the Arab Journal of Humanities.  He also served as editor for the online edition of English Today

In addition to serving as chair of the Linguistics Department for eight years, Kaye also was a member of many departmental and university committees, including the Library Committee and ad hoc committees to develop a master’s degree in religious studies, the bachelor’s degree in mathematics and the minor in Jewish studies.

The College of Humanities and Social Sciences recognized his accomplishments by awarding him the Distinguished Faculty Award in 1998.

Kaye’s 31-year-old daughter Jennifer Kaye said she will never forget Sundays with her father while she was growing up.

“Every Sunday in our house was cleaning day,” she said. “My dad and brother would mow the lawn and do all of the yard work, and it was my job to clean the inside: bathrooms, dishes, floors, vacuuming. Often, my dad would come inside the house with his gloves on and his knees stained by grass clippings, and, much to his dismay, he would find me on the couch watching one dumb television show or another. He would get quite upset with me for most of the afternoon. But, we would always make up later in the evening when he would relax and watch television with me. His favorite show was ‘Married With Children,’ which I thought an odd choice for such a learned man with so many degrees. It did make me feel good, though, to hear his laugh, so loud and so hard.”

His ex-wife and mother of his children, Susan Kaye, said they remained good friends and she keeps fond memories of their many travels together. She gave birth to Jeremy in Sri Lanka, while Kaye was a Fulbright Scholar there.

Jeremy received his bachelor’s degree in English from CSUF in 2001. For a creative writing course in 1999, he wrote this poem, titled “A Trip,” about and for his father:

            It was my first time on a plane.
            Boeing 747.  It could have been a city.
            You took me up to the cockpit.
            They gave me wings;
            You gave me piggyback.

            I didn’t know where we were going.
            Arabia, perhaps.
            Mom said that is where you always went when you traveled.
            (Deep inside, I think you wanted to be an Arab.)

            At the airport —
            There was somebody to meet you.
            I didn’t know you were rich:
            In the movies, only the rich got their names on signs.
            You talked like old friends.
            He was a colleague, you said.

            Countless people — young, old —
            Stood in line to meet you.
            You spoke calmly, elegantly.
            I stood in the periphery, admiring.

Kaye’s colleagues across the globe have sent hundreds of emails expressing their condolences to his family.

Bahaa-Eddin M. Mazid, assistant professor of linguistics at the United Arab Emirates University, wrote: “I attended a lecture by Professor Kaye back in 1995 in Cairo and I have fallen in love with his mind. He was so kind and so humane and so respectful…. The [time] he spent here in the United Arab Emirates was loved by everyone. I was brave enough, encouraged by how kind he was, to ask him to coauthor a book, ‘Politics of Translation,’ with me. He read my draft and made substantial comments. Yet, he refused to put his name on a book he regarded as entirely mine, although I would have been honored if he had accepted.”

Kaye wrote the foreword the Mazid’s book, which is being published later this month.

“I will always miss him,” Mazid noted. “And, I was not his closest friend in the Arab world. He had literally hundreds of friends here, in Egypt, Oman, Qatar, everywhere in Arabia.”

Besides his children, Kaye is survived by his sister Carol Moshos. Condolences can be sent to Kaye’s home, 2220 E. Chapman Ave., #42, Fullerton, Calif., 92831 or to Jeremy Kaye via email at

Charitable donations in Alan Kaye’s name can be made to the American Cancer Society.

A memorial service will be held on campus in September.

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