Memorial Service

On Sunday January 26 there will be a memorial service to remember and celebrate the life of our colleague, Sam Epstein. It will be held beginning at 1:00 pm on the 10th floor of Weiser Hall.


1956 - 2019

Ann Arbor, Michigan. Samuel David Epstein, the Marilyn J. Shatz Collegiate Professor of Linguistics and Cognitive Science at the University of Michigan, died at home on November 29, 2019.

Epstein was a major figure in linguistics, known for his influential theoretical work characterizing the nature of the human language capacity. His work on derivational syntax provided a foundation for the Minimalist Program, the current dominant theoretical paradigm of syntax within the field, launched initially by Noam Chomsky. Chomsky wrote that "Sam was a close friend for many years and a highly valued colleague – in fact the central figure in a group of which I was pleased to be a member working intensely and productively on crucial issues at the borders of inquiry into linguistic theory and its application. A wonderful person, a fine scholar. A painful loss, for all of us."

Epstein taught at the University of Michigan for 22 years. His distinction in teaching and mentoring was recognized by a John D'Arms Award for Excellence in Graduate Mentoring (2009) and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professorship (2013). He was instrumental in launching a program in cognitive science at Michigan which has become one of the fastest growing undergraduate majors in the College of Literature, Science and the Arts. He was the founding Director of the Weinberg Institute for Cognitive Science, established in 2014 with a gift from Marshall Weinberg (UM Philosophy, '50) of New York City.

Epstein served on the faculty at the University of Texas, Austin and Harvard University for nine years before joining the faculty at the University of Michigan in 1997. He was the son of the late Lucille Goldberger Epstein and the late Amherst College Philosophy Professor Joseph Epstein, both of Amherst MA where Sam grew up. He was a really warm and loving husband and father. He is survived by his wife, Elaine McNulty, his daughters, Molly McNulty Epstein, New York City, and Sylvie McNulty Epstein, Washington D.C., as well as his brother Joshua Epstein of NYC and sister-in-law Melissa Healy, niece Matilda Epstein and nephew Joey Epstein.

Memorial contributions may be made to Samuel D. Epstein Scholarship Fund at LSA 101 North Main Street, Suite 850, Ann Arbor, MI 48104. Online gifts can be made at


From the Department

All of Sam's colleagues find ourselves dumbfounded by our sense of grief and loss. We share the words of an anonymous colleague, who wrote to Sam shortly before he died:


Dear Sam

I am writing to tell you what it has meant to have you as a colleague
and friend. I would like to tell you this in person but that is not
possible. I send this letter the way it will reach you the fastest.

As a colleague for so many years, I came to know and
appreciate your rhythms. The endless stream of students who came to
share with and learn from you never ceased to impress me and if I have
to admit, made me feel a bit envious. During that time, the contents
of your office burgeoned as did your scholarly output; you managed to
squeeze an impressive amount of furniture in your office paralleled
by the truly astonishing pez dispenser collection, loving photographs
of your family and drawings by Molly and Sylvie, witty posters and
announcements by your students attesting to their admiration for you
as a scholar and mentor. All this spoke to how important you were in
so many people's lives. The list of awards and honors you received show
the institutional recognition of your efforts but I count myself  very
lucky indeed to have witnessed how you lived your life that led to

I knew you to be a really warm and loving husband and father, a dog
lover and a really great guy. You were an endless
source of humor and shared irritation about institutional insanity. 

I regret that our research interests were so different that we never
found common ground but I would be the first to call you a wonderful
colleague and close friend. It's important to me that you know how
much you have mattered.