‘Innovative’ linguist Margarita Suñer dies at 82

Margarita Amalia Suñer, professor of linguistics emerita in the College of Arts and Sciences (A&S), died in Ojai, California on Feb. 29 after a long bout with Alzheimer’s disease. She was 82.

An expert in the field of Hispanic theoretical linguistics, Suñer is remembered for her insights, her dedication to students and the personable way she shared her love of language.

“Magui was a brilliant, innovative and influential linguist, a gracious, engaged, refreshingly forthright colleague, a kind, insightful, attentive mentor both to her students and to those of us who joined the department after her, and a dear friend,” said Wayne Harbert, professor emeritus of linguistics (A&S). “Our offices were across the hall from each other for decades, and it was my great delight to be able to pop in – almost daily – and chat with her about some syntactic puzzle or other. I always came away wiser.” 

Suñer challenged her students but was also “fair and dedicated to our advancement and well-being,” said Maria Blume del Rio, Ph.D. ’02.

“Some of my best memories of Cornell are of the hours I spent in her office, where she corrected my chapter drafts patiently and thoroughly and complained that I always wrote too many pages. I remember her fascinating classes on Spanish syntax where her handouts and exercises made complex topics seem easy,” said Blume del Rio, associate professor of linguistics at Pontifical Catholic University of Peru. “But most of all I remember her laughter, her warmth, her elegance – and the fact that as a fellow South American, she made me feel at home.”

Sally McConnell-Ginet, professor emerita of linguistics (A&S) said Suñer offered an impressive model of combining demanding job responsibilities with raising a family – one of the first women faculty to do so at Cornell. 

“At the time, she was quickly building a reputation as a theoretical syntactician with a focus on Spanish, mentoring graduate students, heading up the huge undergraduate Spanish language program in what was then the Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics, and rearing two daughters in partnership with husband Erik Beukenkamp,” McConnell-Ginet said. “Erik was building an independent program for teaching English to potential Cornell students. I thought, ‘What an amazing couple.’” 

As a linguist, Suñer analyzed and taught Spanish and related languages in the Romance family, but her results were pivotal for colleagues working on other language families, said E. Wayles Browne, professor emeritus of linguistics (A&S).

“She will be remembered for studies on ways to form question sentences, and for discoveries about clitics – these are the special pronouns that have their own niche in a sentence, different from where a noun would be,” Browne said.

Suñer authored more than 50 articles on Spanish theoretical linguistics and published five books, notably “Gramática española,” a grammar guide for advanced students of Spanish, and “Para a Frente,” an intermediate course in Portuguese.

In addition to teaching, Suñer directed the University of Michigan and Cornell University Academic Year in Seville, Spain from 1993 to 1994.

Margarita “Magui” Suñer was born June 19, 1941 in Buenos Aires. She began her studies in Buenos Aires and continued with a master’s degree in general linguistics from the University of Kansas, then earned a Ph.D. in Spanish and theoretical linguistics from Indiana University.

Her teaching career at Cornell began in 1973 and continued until 2006 when she retired. In later years she became a prolific oil painter, showing her works in Ithaca and later in Southern California, where she moved permanently in 2011.

Suñer is survived by her spouse of 56 years, two daughters and four granddaughters.

Read the story in the Cornell Chronicle.

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