Samuel David Epstein, the Marilyn J. Shatz Collegiate Professor of Linguistics and Cognitive Science, died at home Nov. 29.

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.

Headshot of Samuel David Epstein
Samuel David Epstein

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 in 2009, and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professorship in 2013.

He was instrumental in launching a program in cognitive science at U-M that has become one of the fastest growing undergraduate majors in LSA. He was the founding director of the Weinberg Institute for Cognitive Science, established in 2014.

Epstein served on the faculty at the University of Texas at Austin and at Harvard University for nine years before joining the U-M faculty in 1997.

He was the son of the late Lucille Goldberger Epstein and the late Joseph Epstein, both of Amherst , Massachusetts, where he grew up.

Epstein was a warm and loving husband and father. He is survived by his wife, Elaine McNulty; his daughters, Molly McNulty Epstein and Sylvie McNulty Epstein; as well as his brother, Joshua Epstein, and sister-in-law Melissa Healy, niece Matilda Epstein and nephew Joey Epstein.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Samuel D. Epstein Scholarship Fund at LSA, 101 N. Main St., Suite 850, Ann Arbor, MI 48104, or online at

Submitted by Elaine McNulty