Archive for Obituaries

Charles J. Fillmore

Charles J. (Chuck) Fillmore died last week. Lily Wong Fillmore asked me to prepare some brief remarks for the press. Here they are.

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Charles J. Fillmore, 1929-2014

Arnold Zwicky shares the sad news that the Berkeley linguist Charles J. "Chuck" Fillmore passed away yesterday. Arnold quotes Amy Dahlstrom's Facebook update:

Charles Fillmore died yesterday at age 84 after a long battle with cancer. A brilliant linguist, especially in the field of lexical semantics, who influenced so many of us Berkeley students and colleagues elsewhere. He was sweet and funny and loving, and deeply devoted to [his wife, Berkeley linguist] Lily Wong Fillmore. The loss of my Doktorvater feels like the loss of a parent.

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How Sid Caesar learned double-talk

The obituaries for the great comic Sid Caesar invariably mention his proficiency in "double-talk," mimicking the sounds (but not the sense) of foreign languages. (On the phenomenon of double-talk, see Mark Liberman's posts on yaourter here, here, here, and here.) It turns out that this was a talent Caesar had cultivated ever since he was a boy clearing tables at his father's restaurant in multi-ethnic Yonkers.

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Stanford remembers Ivan Sag

As reported earlier this month by Arnold Zwicky, the world of linguistics lost Ivan Sag after a three-year fight against cancer. Now Corrie Goldman of The Humanities at Stanford provides a more in-depth look at Sag's life, quoting many colleagues (including a couple of Language Loggers) who worked — and played — with him.

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Ivan Sag 1949-2013

My friend and Stanford colleague Ivan Sag died on Tuesday, after three years of enduring cancer, with uncommon grace. Back in April, Stanford hosted a workshop on Structure and Evidence in Linguistics in Ivan's honor; the workshop website has not only the program, but also a set of tributes to Ivan and his 40 years in linguistics.

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Elmore Leonard, 1925-2013

Marilyn Stasio, "Elmore Leonard, Who Refined the Crime Thriller, Dies at 87", NYT 8/20/2013:

Elmore Leonard, the prolific crime novelist whose louche characters, deadpan dialogue and immaculate prose style in novels like “Get Shorty,” “Freaky Deaky” and “Glitz” established him as a modern master of American genre writing, died on Tuesday at his home in Bloomfield Village, Mich. He was 87. [...]

To his admiring peers, Mr. Leonard did not merely validate the popular crime thriller; he stripped the form of its worn-out affectations, reinventing it for a new generation and elevating it to a higher literary shelf.

Reviewing “Riding the Rap” for The New York Times Book Review in 1995, Martin Amis cited Mr. Leonard’s “gifts — of ear and eye, of timing and phrasing — that even the most indolent and snobbish masters of the mainstream must vigorously covet.”

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R.I.P. Ward Goodenough


Bonnie L. Cook, "Ward H. Goodenough, 94, Penn professor", Philadelphia Inquirer 6/15/2013:

Ward H. Goodenough, 94, a longtime University of Pennsylvania professor whose work helped shape anthropology, died Sunday, June 9, of organ failure at the Quadrangle in Haverford. [...]

Born in Cambridge, Mass., he lived in England and Germany as a child while his father studied at the University of Oxford. He became fluent in German by age 4, and his fascination with languages never dimmed.

After the family moved to Connecticut, he graduated from the Groton School in Massachusetts and went on to earn a bachelor's degree in 1940 from Cornell University, majoring in Scandinavian languages and literature.

Although he enrolled in graduate school at Yale University, his studies were interrupted by World War II. He served in the Army as a noncommissioned officer from November 1941 to December 1945.

During the last years of the war, he was assigned to a social science research unit to study certain initiatives. The unit posited that integration of the armed forces was feasible and desirable, and that the GI Bill would meet the needs of returning soldiers and stabilize civilian society.

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John J. Gumperz, 1922-2013

John J. Gumperz, the Berkeley sociolinguist who, among his many contributions, introduced "the speech community" as a unit of linguistic analysis, died on Friday at the age of 91. Margalit Fox has a thoughtful obituary in the New York Times.

Professor Gumperz, who at his death was an emeritus professor in Berkeley’s anthropology department, was a sociolinguist, whose field stands at the nexus of linguistics, anthropology and sociology. But though sociolinguistics as a whole embraces spoken language and the printed word, he concentrated on face-to-face verbal exchanges.

The subfield he created, known as interactional sociolinguistics, studies such exchanges in a range of social situations. It is especially concerned with discourse as it occurs across cultures, seeking to pinpoint the sources of the misunderstandings that can arise.

“He was one of the first people to look at how language is used by people in their everyday lives,” Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and the author of popular books on language, said in a recent interview. “Gumperz was paying attention to the details of how language is used: your intonation, where you pause, the specific expressions that people from one culture or another might use.”

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Calvert Watkins, 1933-2013

The great Indo-Europeanist Calvert Watkins passed away in his sleep on the evening of March 20. From the Harvard Gazette:

Calvert Watkins, the Victor S. Thomas Professor of Linguistics and the Classics, emeritus, died earlier this month at the age of 80. 

A towering figure in historical and Indo-European linguistics and a pioneer in the field of Indo-European poetics, Watkins presided over the expansion of Harvard’s Department of Linguistics in the 1960s, and served as its chair several times between 1963 until his retirement in 2003. From then until his death, he served as professor in residence at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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Remembering Neil Armstrong and his "one small step"

Since the death of Neil Armstrong on Saturday, many remembrances have told the story about his famously flubbed first words on the moon. From Ian Crouch on The New Yorker's News Desk blog:

When the lunar module, named the Eagle, touched down, following moments of radio silence that terrified the folks back in mission control, he relayed: “Houston: Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” Later, as he made his way out of the lunar module (or LM), he described his progress in banal terms that, because of where they were coming from and what they conveyed, rose to the level of magic: “I’m going to step off the LM now.” And then he issued what is among the most famous proclamations of the last century—a jubilant counterbalance to F.D.R.’s “Day of Infamy” speech and a capstone to J.F.K.’s declaration that “we choose to go to the moon”—a statement that Armstrong had composed and prepared just hours earlier, in between the more pressing business of operating space equipment, according to Armstrong’s biographer, James Hansen: “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”

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Mad Libguistics

One of the random things I happened to notice yesterday, in a list of people who passed away in 2011, was the name of Leonard Stern, co-creator of Mad Libs. (Back in 2008, Arnold Zwicky marked the game's 50th anniversary here on Language Log.) For those who've never seen it, Mad Libs is a word game in which one player prompts a second player for a list of words — give me a noun; ok, now an adjective; ok, now another noun, etc. — where the kinds of words needed are determined by labeled blanks that are situated in a little story that only the first player can see. In the second step of the game, the two players read the story together with the words inserted in their proper positions. The very first Mad Libs gave the following as an example:

 "_____________! he said ________ as he jumped into his convertible
exclamation              adverb
______ and drove off with his __________ wife."
 noun                            adjective

(Footnote: I've borrowed the example from the game's Wikipedia entry.)

Thinking about Mad Libs last night after a bedtime conversation with my six year old, I've concluded that someone really needs to design a linguistics course entirely around Mad Libs.

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The immortal Pierre Vinken

On November 7, publishers Reed Elsevier announced the passing of Pierre Vinken, former Reed Elsevier CEO and Chairman, at age 83. But to those of us in natural language processing, Mr. Vinken is 61 years old, now and forever.

Though I expect it was unknown to him, Mr. Vinken has been the most familiar of names in natural language processing circles for years, because he is the subject (in both senses, not to mention the inaugural bigram) of the very first sentence of the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) corpus:

Pierre Vinken, 61 years old, will join the board as a nonexecutive director Nov. 29.

But there's a fascinating little twist that most NLPers are probably not aware of. I certainly wasn't.

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DMR R.I.P.

It's possible that you don't know who Dennis Ritchie was. Even if you do, you should read some of his obituaries, and think about the ways in which he changed the world: Steve Lohr, "Dennis Ritchie, Trailblazer in Digital Era, Dies at 70", NYT; Elizabeth Flock, "Dennis Ritchie, father of C programming language and Unix, dies at 70", Washington Post; Cade Metz, "Dennis Ritchie: The Shoulders Steve Jobs Stood On", Wired News; Mark Memmott, "Dennis Ritchie, C Programmer And Unix Co-Creator, Has Died", NPR.

Johnny Truant, commenting on that last piece, contributed a tribute that Dennis would have appreciated:

#include "stdio.h"
int main(void)
{
printf("goodbye, world\n");
return 0;
}

(Though everyone who knew Dennis, or who knows what he did for the world, would object to that return value.)

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Max Mathews R.I.P.

Max Mathews died yesterday morning.  For his 80th birthday in 2007, CCRMA's MaxFest described his contributions this way:

Fifty years ago, in 1957, at Bell Telephone Laboratories, Max Mathews demonstrated that the digital computer can be used as a fantastic new music instrument. He created a revolutionary software platform destined to form the basis of all contemporary digital musical systems (Music 1–Music 5).

His audacious ideas were driven by the belief that "any sound that the human ear can hear can be produced by a computer". Mathews's mastery of this new instrument revealed new musical horizons and sparked a burgeoning curiosity into the very nature of sound. His comprehension and elaboration made five decades of art and research possible, laying the groundwork for generations of electronic musicians to synthesize, record, and play music.

Today at Stanford's Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) as a Professor Emeritus he continues not only to educate students and colleagues, but also to guide and inspire with his constant inventiveness and pure musical pleasure.

Join us in honoring Max for two evenings of sound, celebration and discovery of his ideas, works, music, and writings.

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William F. Shipley, 1921-2011

[Update: a memorial page for Bill, to which people can contribute thoughts, pictures, etc., can be found here.]

It saddens me greatly to report that William F. Shipley passed away on January 20, 2011. He was 89 years old. Bill was my first linguistics professor, my first advisor and mentor, my first academic collaborator, and my dear, dear friend. I already miss him more than I am able to put into words.

Bill completed his dissertation under the direction of Mary Haas at UC Berkeley in 1959, a grammar of the Native California language Maidu (published in the University of California Publications in Linguistics series in 1964, with a dictionary and texts published in 1963). In 1966, he left an appointment at Berkeley to be among the very first faculty to participate in the big experiment that UC Santa Cruz was at the time, and he retired from UCSC in 1991.

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