In Memoriam René Dirven (1932-2016)


René Dirven, one of the founding fathers of cognitive linguistics, died on August 18, 2016 at the age of 83 in his hometown Mechelen, Belgium. The cognitive-linguistic community mourns the loss of one of its most important figures. The last years of his life were overshadowed by blindness, but René cooperated with colleagues and read publications by way of screen readers, wrote articles and established an online discussion group. His work came to an abrupt end after an accident at his home. When still in hospital, his wife Lutgard De Wit died on August 3. After 58 years of married life, he wanted to attend her funeral but suffered a stroke the day before the ceremony, leaving the left part of his body paralyzed. After another severe stroke, he passed away only fifteen days after his wife. His burial was on August 25, 2016. He leaves behind two daughters and a son, his daughter Greet having predeceased him in November of 2015, three sons-in-law and one daughter-in-law as well as eight grandchildren. But he also leaves behind numerous students and colleagues throughout the academic world who have learned much from him about language and linguistics.

René Dirven figures prominently as one of the founding fathers and the spiritual mentor of cognitive linguistics. However, his main concern with cognitive linguistics is to be seen in the framework of a more general interest in the role of language in society. Some of the wide-ranging fields of study that René has been concerned with most during his academic career include three major areas: (i) his concern with applied linguistics from the perspective of foreign language teaching and learning; (ii) his concern with macro-sociolinguistics as illustrated by way of the multilingual situation in Africa; (iii) his commitment to the conceptual foundation of language as explored by cognitive linguistics, its underlying theories and methodologies and major strands.

In 1971, René received his doctoral degree from the University of Leuven in Belgium. In his comprehensive thesis entitled Some Problems of Attribution and Predication in English Syntax: A Transformational Approach, he took up the controversy hotly debated at that time of whether the transformational model was to be syntactically based, as proposed by Chomsky, Jackendoff and others, or semantically based, as suggested by Lakoff, Ross, McCawley, etc. These early ideas of his on a semantically, or conceptually, motivated syntax already made it clear that he was on his way towards becoming a cognitive linguist, a perspective which later on he vigorously propounded in many publications, plenary lectures and talks in Europe and around the world.

In 1972, René was appointed Professor of English Linguistics at the University of Trier, Germany’s oldest city adjacent to Luxembourg and France. Applying linguistics to language teaching was his main goal, in other words adapting linguistic insights to the needs of the teacher and the student, making the structure of language transparent and meaningful, presenting authentic use of language, and gearing the teaching material to the students’ needs and motivation. Feedback from his students was an essential part of his academic work. During the process of supervising and editing the three volumes of A User’s Grammar of English (Dirven 1989), he constantly tried out new methods and solutions to grammatical problems in his “Practical English” seminars. Twenty years later he presented his view of applied and didactic linguistics within the cognitive framework in two volumes entitled Applied Cognitive Linguistics (Pütz, Niemeier and Dirven 2001a, 2001b). These were the first extensive publications concentrating on the links between theoretical views of cognitive linguistics and their application in the areas of language acquisition, learning and pedagogy.

In Trier, René always understood his linguistic work within the larger context of linguistic research done world-wide. New ways of communication were required in order to spread new linguistic ideas across the linguistic community, especially in Europe. He founded, together with his colleague Günter Radden, a linguistic clearing-house in 1973, the Linguistic Agency at the University of Trier (LAUT). LAUT aimed at the quick dissemination of linguistic research by pre-publishing important linguistic papers. By now, LAUT and its successor in Duisburg, LAUD, have circulated more than two thousand papers on issues of theoretical and applied linguistics, and there is hardly any renowned linguist whose name has not appeared on the list of papers published by LAUT/LAUD. It goes without saying that by now the acronym LAUD is internationally known and strongly associated with the name of its founder and main representative, René Dirven. The Linguistic Agency also provided an institutionalized forum that allowed René to organize an impressive series of international linguistic symposia. The world’s most distinguished scholars were invited to present their work at the newly founded University of Trier, which overnight became known as a destination of pilgrimage in modern linguistics. The series of symposia was opened in 1977 with papers by Charles Fillmore, followed by John Searle, William Labov, Michael Halliday, George Lakoff, Ronald Langacker and many other well-known scholars of linguistics.

In 1985, René Dirven was appointed Full Professor of English Linguistics at the University of Duisburg in North-Rhine Westfalia, Germany. In the same year he was invited by John Taylor to give several lectures in South Africa. This visit was to become more than an academic lecture tour. It not only opened up a vista to cognitive linguistics for John Taylor, but it also widened René’s view of languages and linguistics. As a sociolinguist, he became interested in the multilingual situation of South Africa. As a native speaker of Dutch, he was fascinated by the unusually rich metaphorical world which Afrikaans has preserved from Dutch or developed as a creole language.

Borrowing from Lakoff and Johnson (1980), René Dirven initiated a research project on “Metaphors Afrikaners live by,” which was soon published in book form entitled Metaphor and Nation: Metaphors Afrikaners Live By (Dirven 1994). René Dirven always understood his linguistic work on language policy in South Africa as a contribution towards a democratic, non-racial post-apartheid system. He always vigorously expressed his views on the conditions for a stronger exploitation of the multilingual resources of Southern Africa. Academics, linguists and non-linguists in Africa are constantly exposed to the multilingual nature of their cultural communities. For René Dirven, who was used to living in a trilingual country and whose wife and children were as multilingual as he was, this situation was not unusual, but rather the norm.

As a consequence, René Dirven initiated the foundation of LiCCA (Languages in Contact and Conflict in Africa), an international macro-sociolinguistic research project funded by the Flemish Government (1996-1999) and involving various universities and research institutions in Africa, Europe and the United States (Dirven 1990; Dirven and Webb 1992; Dirven and Blommaert 1997). The major thrust of LiCCA was to contribute to the optimal use of the multilingual potential in African countries. René was convinced that the language problems, ideologies and educational issues of sub-Saharan Africa should be tackled cooperatively by government representatives, language communities and academics alike and he constantly urged researchers to take up this challenge. His work on language contact and conflict situations in Africa resulted in many publications, highlighting undemocratic multilingual language policies especially in South Africa, which he visited several times. As a token of their high esteem for René’s work for the African continent, African scholars offered René a Festschrift entitled Living through Languages: An African Tribute to René Dirven, edited by Christa van der Walt (2007).

While Africa presented a new geographical and social challenge to René Dirven, the rise of cognitive studies presented a new linguistic challenge to him. Very few people in Europe had been aware of the cognitive revolution spearheaded by the Berkeley and San Diego schools of thought in the late 1970s and 1980s, and it was once again René Dirven who opened the gateway for these ideas to spread among European scholars. In an interview with Sabine De Knop (2010), René pointed out that, with the publication of Lakoff and Johnson’s classic Metaphors We Live By (1980), cognitive linguistics appeared on the linguistics scene world-wide and finally set foot in Europe, i.e. “for the post-generative world this booklet was the light rocket in a somewhat greyish linguistic sky” (Dirven in De Knop 2010: 177). In the spring of 1989, at Duisburg University in Germany, René organized the 22nd LAUD Symposium on cognitive linguistics, which in retrospect was declared to be the “First International Cognitive Linguistics Conference” (ICLC). This conference attracted more than 120 linguists from 15 countries, still quite a modest symposium compared to the present ICLC mega-events. As Langacker once put it, this first conference “marked the birth of Cognitive Linguistics as a broadly grounded, self-conscious intellectual movement” (Langacker 1991: ix). The symposium indeed became a true landmark in cognitive linguistics: It was here that the International Cognitive Linguistics Association (ICLA) was founded and the series Cognitive Linguistics Research and the journal Cognitive Linguistics under the imprint of Mouton de Gruyter were launched.

On the occasion of the Duisburg conference in 1989, René Dirven also initiated a “Cognitive Linguistics Bibliography Project”. This bibliography highlighted the accelerating pace of linguistic developments and their potential impact on the researchers’ thinking in the cognitive community. Almost 20 years later, with the cooperation of several editors and a number of associates, René’s long-term bibliographical concern finally culminated in two large electronic enterprises, namely the compilations of the “Cognitive Linguistics Bibliography”, published by Mouton de Gruyter (De Knop et al. 2008), and the online “Bibliography of Metaphor & Metonymy”, published by John Benjamins (De Knop et al. 2005). Both compilations were co-edited by René Dirven as their main instigator and spiritual mentor. In 2010, the Cognitive Linguistics Bibliography already numbered over 13,000 entries and also included 82 articles, books and edited volumes produced by René himself within a period of 20 years. René’s enormous output of cognitive linguistics studies not only made him one of the founding fathers and organizers of the field, but also one of the most hard-working and irrepressible cognitive linguists in the last quarter century.

René has held many positions within the cognitive linguistics enterprise. From 1995 to 1997, he served as the third President of ICLA, increasing the association’s reputation and prominence in cognitive linguistics research. He was co-editor of two monograph series published by Mouton de Gruyter, launched in 2006, “Cognitive Linguistics Research” and “Applications of Cognitive Linguistics”. Together with Marjolijn Verspoor he edited the first textbook in the series “Cognitive Linguistics in Practice” (CLiP), entitled Cognitive Explorations of Language and Linguistics (1999, 2nd edition 2004). The book is still being used as a textbook in many universities around the world and has been translated into seven languages. The second book in the CLiP series is Cognitive English Grammar (CEG), written over a time span of ten years in cooperation with his colleague and friend of old, Günter Radden (Radden and Dirven 2007). CEG was their third jointly produced English grammar, it integrates insights from Langacker’s cognitive grammar, Lakoff’s conceptual metaphor theory, Fauconnier’s mental space theory and Goldberg’s construction grammar.

René also constantly wrote state-of-the-art reports on the rise, development and perspectives of cognitive linguistics, such as “Major Strands in Cognitive Linguistics” (Dirven 2005), “Cognitive Linguistics” (Dirven 2008) or “Looking back at 30 years of Cognitive Linguistics” (Dirven and Ruiz de Mendoza 2011). His experience with the social, cultural and linguistic problems in Africa triggered his interest and efforts towards a cognitive sociolinguistics. The book on Cognitive Sociolinguistics (Kristiansen and Dirven 2008) is concerned with the variational dimension of a usage-based approach. From a macro-sociolinguistic point of view, René favored an ideologically-laden Critical Cognitive Linguistics, that is, cognitive ideology research associated with the study of power relations as an intrinsic part of cognitive linguistics (Dirven and Pütz 2007). This trend was already dominant in the cognitive approaches to ideology taken in the twin volumes Language and Ideology edited by René Dirven and others (2001a, b). In the course of his academic career, René has published close to 30 books and 190 articles. The high esteem René enjoyed as an outstanding scholar among his numerous colleagues and friends can be seen from books and Festschriften dedicated to him (Pütz 1992, Smieja and Tasch 1997, van der Walt 2006, De Knop and De Rycker 2008). It is surely a measure of René Dirven’s outstanding reputation that his colleagues and students have felt the need to pay tribute by publishing collections of articles in his honor.

René was an excellent teacher and an invaluable source of inspiration for his students and young researchers. He not only taught his students well but also included them in many scholarly activities, and he encouraged young scholars to conduct research, write and publish and thus contributed to the academic careers of many cognitive linguists in Europe and throughout the world. René can certainly be assured of our deep respect and recognition for all the hard work he did for us. Many friends and colleagues expressed their deep consternation at the sudden loss of René but also gave voice to their gratitude and privilege to have known and worked with this very special person. René Dirven will be remembered for his scholarly work, his warmth and his positive attitude: “Everything will be alright if you just don’t worry.”



  • De Knop, Sabine, René Dirven and Birgit Smieja (eds.). 2005. Bibliography of Metaphor and Metonymy (METBIB). The Interdisciplinary Resource of Figurative Language. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
  • De Knop, Sabine, Beate Hampe, René Dirven and Birgit Smieja (eds.). 2008. Cognitive Linguistics Bibliography. Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • De Knop, Sabine and Teun De Rycker (eds.). 2008. Cognitive Approaches to Pedagogical Grammar: A Volume in Honour of René Dirven. Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • De Knop, Sabine. 2010. Diversity and unity in Cognitive Linguistics: An interview with René Dirven. Review of Cognitive Linguistics 8:1, 177-205.
  • Dirven, René. 1971. Some Problems of Attribution and Predication in English Syntax: A Transformational Approach. Dissertation Catholic University of Leuven.
  • Dirven, René (ed.). 1989. A User’s Grammar of English: Compact Edition. Frankfurt/Main: Peter Lang.
    Dirven, René. 1990. Contact and conflict linguistics in Southern Africa. In: K. Chick (ed.). Searching for Relevance. Contextual issues in Applied Linguistics in Southern Africa. Durban: SAALA, 16-51.
  • Dirven, René. 1994. Metaphor and Nation: Metaphors Afrikaners Live By. Frankfurt/Main: Lang.
  • Dirven, René; Hawkins, Bruce and Esra Sandikcioglu (eds.). 2001a. Language and Ideology. Volume I: Theoretical cognitive approaches. <Current Issues in Linguistic Theory, Vol. 204>. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
  • Dirven, René; Frank, Roslyn and Cornelia Ilie (eds.). 2001b. Language and Ideology. Volume II. Descriptive cognitive approaches. <Current Issues in Linguistic Theory, Vol. 205>. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
  • Dirven, René. 2005. Major strands in Cognitive Linguistics. In F.J. Ruiz de Mendoza Ibánez and M. S. Pena Cervel (eds). Cognitive Linguistics: Internal dynamics and interdisciplinary interaction. Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 17-68.
  • Dirven, René. 2008. Cognitive Linguistics. In: K. Malmkjaer (ed.). The Linguistics Encyclopedia. 2nd. Edition. Routledge: London and New York, 76-82.
  • Dirven, René and Martin Pütz. 2007. Language conflict seen from the perspective of the rationalist and romantic models: new developments. Southern African Linguistics and Applied Language Studies, 25(3): 303-317.
  • Dirven, René and Vic Webb (1992). LiCCA Research and Development Programme. Duisburg: University of Duisburg.
  • Dirven, René and Jan Blommaert. 1997. The Africanisation of LiCCA. In: B. Smieja (ed.). Proceedings of the LiCCA Workshop in Dar es Salaam, 26-28 September 1996. Duisburg: LICCAP Series, no.2.
  • Dirven, René and Francisco José Ruiz de Mendoza Ibánez. 2011. Looking back at 30 years of Cognitive Linguistics. In: E. Tabakowska, M. Choinski and W. Lukasz (eds.). Cognitive Linguistics in Action: From Theory to Application and Back. Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 13-70.
  • Kristiansen, Gitte and René Dirven (eds.). 2008. Cognitive Sociolinguistics: Language Variation, Cultural Models, Social Systems. <Cognitive Linguistics Research, 37>. Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter.
    Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. 1980. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago Ill: The University of Chicago Press.
  • Langacker, Ronald. 1991. Concept, Image and Symbol: The Cognitive Basis of Grammar. Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Pütz, Martin (ed.). 1992. Thirty Years of Linguistic Evolution: Studies in Honour of René Dirven on the Occasion of his Sixtieth Birthday. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
  • Pütz, Martin, Susanne Niemeier and René Dirven (eds.). 2001a. Applied Cognitive Linguistics I: Theory and Language Acquisition. Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Pütz, Martin, Susanne Niemeier and René Dirven (eds.). 2001b. Applied Cognitive Linguistics II: Language Pedagogy. Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Radden, Günter and René Dirven. 2007. Cognitive English Grammar. <Cognitive Linguistics in Practice 2>. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
  • Smieja, Birgit and Maike Tasch (eds). 1997. Human Contact through Language and Linguistics. Frankfurt/M: Lang.
  • Van der Walt, Christa (ed.). 2006. Living through Languages: An African Tribute to René Dirven. Stellenbosch: Sun Press.


Martin Pütz & Günter Radden