Susan Ervin-Tripp, pioneering psycholinguist and feminist, dies at 91

Susan Ervin-Tripp, a psycholinguist acclaimed for her pioneering studies of bilingualism and language development in children, native Americans and immigrants, died earlier this month in Oakland from complications of an infected cut. She was 91.

A widely cherished UC Berkeley professor emerita of psychology and an early advocate for gender equity in academia, Ervin-Tripp remained intellectually, socially and politically active after she retired in 1999, and right up until her death on Nov. 13.

Among other notable achievements, Ervin-Tripp, a 1974 Guggenheim fellow, discovered that people’s mindsets can change depending on the language they are speaking, providing new insights into the cognitive psychology of bilingualism.

“She was a pathbreaker, embracing new directions in the study of first-language acquisition as well as bilingualism,” said UC Berkeley psychology professor emeritus Dan Slobin. “In addition to groundbreaking scholarly work, she focused on the treatment of women and minorities, yet always using her psycholinguistic and sociolinguistic skills to provide a scientific foundation to her advocacy.”

Ann Kring, UC Berkeley chair of psychology, recalls how Ervin-Tripp’s steadfast activism led to the 1971 creation of the Academic Senate’s Standing Committee on the Status of Women, which later became the Committee on the Status of Women and Ethnic Minorities, of which she served as chair.

“This, along with actions by Sue and many other women on campus, led to significant increases in hiring of women faculty and movement toward pay equity between male and female faculty members,” Kring said. “She was a beloved member of the department, never shy to express her views but also keen to listen and understand others. She will be missed.”

Ervin-Tripp’s husband of 54 years, Robert Tripp, is a professor emeritus of physics at UC Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.


Groundbreaking research

Her efforts paid off. In a 1964 experiment, she showed a series of illustrations to bilingual French adults living in the United States and asked them to invent a three-minute story for each image. In describing each scene, the storytellers emphasized certain interpersonal dynamics in English and entirely different ones in French.

In a 1968 experiment of Japanese women married to American men in San Francisco, she found that the wives’ answers differed dramatically depending on the language in which the questions were asked. The results suggest human thought and feeling is expressed within language mindsets.

In 1975, Ervin-Tripp secured a faculty position in the psychology department, where she focused on early language development in mono- and bilingual children.

As her own children grew older, their language acquisition, jokes and insults became material for her research papers. She made presentations on such topics as “Gender differences in the construction of humorous talk,” “It was hecka funny: Some features of children’s conversational development” and “Risky laughter: Teasing and self-directed joking among male and female friends.”

Among other honors, she received a Guggenheim fellowship in 1974 and a Cattel fellowship in psychology in 1985. She was also a dedicated research psychologist in the Institute of Human Development and the Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences. In 2000, she served as president  of the International Pragmatics Association.

In her 70s, Ervin-Tripp acknowledged that she was slowing down physically, and so would give her beloved downhill skiing one last go.

“It was apparent it might be necessary to stop because of arthritis, so I thought I would really enjoy that run,” she wrote in an email to her family. “Because at my age anything you like to do may suddenly be unavailable. But it is not sad. It just means enjoy. It’s like mindfulness training.”

That combination of tenacity, resilience and cheerful optimism is what made Ervin-Tripp so remarkable, family members said.

“She never fully accepted slowing down with age and had a fire of curiosity until the very end that she shared with everyone whose life touched hers,” said her daughter, Katya Tripp. “The intensity of the light of who she was is irreplaceable, and we miss her terribly.”

Ervin-Tripp is survived by her husband, Robert Tripp, of Berkeley; sons, Alexander Tripp of New York, and Nico Tripcevich, of Berkeley; daughter, Katya Tripp of Portland, Oregon; daughters-in-law Suzanne Murray and Cheyla Samuelson; and granddaughters Clara Tripp, Iva Borrello and Sofia Tripcevich.

A campus memorial to celebrate the life and legacy of Ervin-Tripp will be held in the spring. For more details about the event, email

Posted on November 30, 2018