In memoriam Robert W. Hsu (Bob Hsu) (1935-2018)

Robert (Bob) Hsu passed away on 28 January, 2018.
The older people in our lab will remember him. During a stay of several weeks at LaCiTO in 1984, Bob conducted workshops presenting Lexware, the lexical database software he had written, and generally introduced computer literacy and the principles of linguistic data processing to the lab.
Bob was a linguist, whose thesis (Berkeley, 1969) was on the Micronesian language Yapese. But his undergraduate background in mathematics (AB Cambridge, 1957) played an equal part in his career at the University of Hawaii, where he was first employed in 1965 to explore the application of computers and information science to processing language data, a subject he later taught as a professor in the linguistics department.
His collaboration on a 1970s Hawaii project on Micronesian languages led to the development of his database system, Lexware, which defined a flexible, logically-structured plain-text format for lexical data, and provided scripts for maintenance, research and data export. This system was unique in the field at the time (the first version of Shoebox was written in 1987).
Lexware was adopted by many researchers and research groups over several decades, and led to the publication of scores of dictionaries of endangered languages. In 2010, Bob characteristically provided a photo of his bookshelf of Lexware dictionaries when asked for a photo of himself for a web-page. (See the homepage of the Sahaptin dictionary, under « software developers »)
At LaCiTO, Lexware lexical (including comparative) data files continue to be used in research on the Tibeto-Burman languages of the Himalaya; a Limbu dictionary appeared in print in 2002 and in an online hypertext version in 2008.
Bob was also the author of software for comparison and reconstruction, and for language data processing in general, all informed by his double point of view as a programmer and a linguist.
Bob was a delightful person, so discreet as not to be noticed. He was generous with his attention and his assistance. In the course of our association and friendship we came to appreciate the mathematician’s, or Paninian, æsthetic of elegance and economy that enlightened his work and his life.
He had retired to Seattle from the University of Hawaii 20 years ago.

Boyd and Martine


Some descriptions of Bob Hsu’s early work at Hawaii can be found in the following publications:

Hsu, R.W. and Peters, A.M. 1984. Computers and Micronesian dictionaries: a chronicle of systems-design fieldwork among the lexicographers. In: Bender, B.W. editor, Studies in Micronesian linguistics. C-80. Pacific Linguistics. Canberra: The Australian National University. 1-36. http://dx.doi.org/10.15144/PL-C80.1.

Hsu, Robert W. 1985. The role of computers in dictionary-making at the University of Hawaii. In: Pawley, A. and L. Carrington, L., (eds). Austronesian linguistics at the 15th Pacific Science Congress. Pacific Linguistics C-88. Canberra: The Australian National University. 313-328. http://dx.doi.org/10.15144/PL-C88.313.

Hsu, Robert W. 2010. Howard McKaughan and computer-aided lexicography at the University of Hawai‘i. In: Billings, Loren & Nelleke Goudswaard (eds.), Piakandatu ami Dr. Howard P. McKaughan. Manila: Linguistic Society of the Philippines and SIL Philippines. 149–156. https://www.sil.org/resources/archives/57951.


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