Emmon Bach died at home in Oxford on November 28 of pneumonia-induced sudden respiratory failure. Emmon was born on June 12, 1929, in Kumamoto, Japan, the youngest of six children of Danish missionary parents Ditlev Gotthard Monrad Bach and Ellen Sigrid Bach who moved with their family from Japan to the U.S. in 1941, where he grew up in Fresno and Boulder. He did his undergraduate and graduate work at the University of Chicago, with a Ph.D. in Germanic Studies in 1959; his dissertation was Patterns of Syntax in Hoelderlin’s Poems. He taught at the University of Texas from 1959 to 1972, first in the German Department and then in Linguistics, then at Queens College and the Graduate Center of CUNY in 1972–73. From 1973 until his retirement in 1992 he was Professor of Linguistics, and then Sapir Professor of Linguistics, at UMass Amherst, where he served as Department Head from 1977 until 1985. Starting a few years after his retirement from UMass, he held an appointment as a Professorial Research Associate at SOAS (University of London), where he taught semantics and field methods. And in 2007 he became affiliated with Oxford University, where he gave graduate lectures in Semantics and participated in the Syntax Working Group.
He was President of the Linguistic Society of America in 1996 and President of SSILA, the Society for the Study of Indigenous Languages of the Americas, this year.
Emmon is survived by his wife Wynn Chao, his son Eric Bach and his grandson Carl Esteban (Stevie) Bach, his stepsons Morriss, David, and Joel Partee, his stepchildren Christopher and Gabriella Lewis, three step grandchildren and a step-great-grandson, his second wife Reed Young of Houston, his third wife Barbara Partee of Amherst, and one remaining brother, David Bach of Ventura, CA.
As the Oxford linguists write, “Emmon was one of the brightest and most influential figures in formal semantics, and was also well known for his work on morphology and North American languages. He also continued to do innovative research on morphology and semantics, having only recently finished a paper on morphosemantics and polysynthesis.”
From Emmon’s own website (editing into 3rd person and sadly into past tense), “Emmon published articles and books on syntax, phonology, languages of British Columbia, especially Haisla, on problems of tense and aspect in semantics, and on formal problems and semantic issues in the morphology of polysynthetic languages. For several years in the 1980s and 1990s, he taught linguistics and cotaught Haisla and Coast Tsimshian in British Columbia, where he was affiliated with the University of Northern British Columbia. Beyond his scientific interests, he was also concerned with language rights and problems of language endangerment. He also wrote poetry and played the banjo and various other instruments.”
His funeral will take place at 11.15 on Saturday, 13 December at St John's Chapel, Oxford Crematorium, Bayswater Rd, Headington, Oxford OX3 9RZ. Details are posted on the Oxford Linguistics website.
Later there will very likely be one or more memorial services in the UK and in the USA; information about such events will be gathered and shared, probably on a website at UMass Amherst, where there will also be places to share memories, stories, photos, and tributes (still under construction). A preliminary website constructed by Jim Blevins is here; it includes a link to photos from the Emmonfest organized in June of this year by Jim Blevins, Gert Webelhuth, and Joyce McDonough in Frankfurt to celebrate his 85th birthday.
Emmon was a key part of the strength in semantics that helped to put UMass on the map within just a few years of the department’s 1970 creation. He was Co-Director of the memorable 1974 Linguistic Institute at UMass, which included an unprecedentedly strong semantics and philosophy of language component, with leading scholars here to teach and participate in research workshops. He taught and co-taught semantics seminars with Barbara Partee, Terry Parsons, and later Angelika Kratzer. And he was a big influence on the warm collegiality of the department. As a teacher and mentor, he encouraged students to follow their own interests and develop their own ideas, never trying to impose his own ideas or agenda.
Emmon Bach supervised PhD dissertations in semantics, syntax, and phonology, including those by George Horn, Deborah Nanni, Ellen Broselow, Mark Stein, Jean Lowenstamm, Deirdre Wheeler, Charles Jones, Wynn Chao, Carolyn Quintero, Joyce McDonough, Gert Webelhuth, and Jim Blevins. Students whose dissertation committees involved Emmon included Robin Cooper, Muffy Siegel, Nicki Keach, Michael Flynn, Michael Rochemont, Paul Hirschbuhler, Ken Ross, Elisabet Engdahl, Irene Heim, Gennaro Chierchia, Peter Sells, Alison Huettner, Yoshi Kitagawa, Craige Roberts, Scott Myers, Jae-Woong Choe, Sandro Zucchi, Virginia Brennan, Noriko Kawasaki, and Paul Portner.
Emmon had also been interested in linguistic fieldwork from several years before he came to UMass. His first periods in Kitimat, BC, working on the Haisla language were around 1970–71. He resumed that interest in the late 1970s and spent quite a few summers and some sabbatical (and retirement) years in Kitimat, including all of 1989–90 and 1994–95, with continuing trips there until quite recently. His work on Haisla led him into a great interest in the nature of the word in agglutinative languages; in the open Workshop on Cross-Linguistic Semantics at the 1989 Linguistic Institute he first launched discussion of the question of whether one might find variable-binding inside the word in languages where “a word can be a sentence”.
In the last few decades many of his papers have been about the syntax and the semantics of word grammar, often drawing on Haisla. His most recent work includes three joint papers with Wynn Chao, "On semantic universals and typology" (2009), "The metaphysics of natural language(s)" (2012), and "Semantic types across languages" (2012).
His earlier research included classic papers on the semantics of tense and aspect, often combined with excursions into what he felicitously christened “natural language metaphysics”. As he put it, philosophers who work on metaphysics try to figure out what there is; linguists try to figure out what speakers of natural languages talk as if there is — what presuppositions about metaphysics and ontology are built into the semantics of a language. And he saw model-theoretic semantics as offering new ways to probe such presuppositions. Among his most cited contributions are two in this area: “On time, tense, and aspect: an essay in English metaphysics” (1981) and “The algebra of events” (1986). Earlier still he had done influential work somewhat in the vein of generative semantics, particularly with his early and influential paper “Nouns and noun phrases” (1968). His interesting work in the 1970s on the status of “transitive verb phrases” (TVPs), phrasal units that combine with a direct object to make a verb phrase, led to insights into the nature of passive (“In defense of passive” (1980)) and control (“Control in Montague grammar” (1979), “Purpose clauses and control” (1982)), and fed into his interest in “extended categorial grammar”: when a TVP combines with a direct object, the direct object goes next to the verb — the TVP combines with the NP by an operation he called “right-wrap”. A number of those ideas, including “right-wrap”, were later incorporated into HPSG.
Like many semanticists, Emmon started as a syntactician. He wrote the first textbook on transformational grammar, Introduction to Transformational Grammar (1964), surprising the graduate students in the first years of MIT’s Ph.D. program, who hadn’t imagined that anyone outside of MIT knew the things they were learning there. When they asked him about that at the December 1964 LSA meeting, he gently replied, “I can read.” His second textbook, Syntactic Theory, came 10 years later and was widely influential. With that one, he had to fight a bit with the copy editor, who replaced “if and only if” everywhere with “if”, writing “Redundant” in the margin! (Emmon prevailed.)
His book Informal Lectures on Formal Semantics (1989), grew out of a series of lectures he gave in China in 1984, made formal semantics less intimidating and more understandable, and more “linguistic”, for many. Let me quote a lovely comment from Brian Buccola today, on Kai von Fintel’s Facebook post about Emmon: “The first book that I borrowed from the MIT library when I arrived this semester was Emmon Bach's "Informal Lectures on Formal Semantics". The title grabbed me, and wow did he do that title justice: one of the clearest, most accessible expositions of formal semantics (Montague Grammar, and many extensions to MG) that I've read. It's one of those books that I feel I should read once a year, just to put everything in perspective. He must have been an exceptional teacher.”
Emmon will be sadly missed and fondly remembered by generations of family, friends, colleagues and students. His passing leaves a big hole, but he left us more than a hole-ful of riches to be grateful for.