R.I.P. Emmon Bach

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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.


  1. Sally Thomason said,

    December 6, 2014 @ 7:10 am

    I have both of Emmon's textbooks and many of his articles, but my favorite of all his writings is a1972 paper he wrote with Bob Harms: "How do languages get crazy rules?". And then there's his wonderful work on Wakashan languages: he gave a terrific talk on common grammatical features in languages of the Pacific Northwest in a symposium I organized at the 1997 AAAS meeting in Seattle, and in 2009 I was able to sit in on the Linguistic Institute course on Wakashan that he taught with Pat Shaw in Berkeley. But mostly I think of Emmon himself, a wonderful person. It's hard to realize that I can no longer expect to run into him at the annual LSA meeting.

  2. Barbara Partee said,

    December 6, 2014 @ 2:21 pm

    Jim Blevins has just set up the beginnings of a memorial site at emmonbach.info . It includes a link to the program and photos from the Emmonfest that he and Gert Webelhuth and Joyce McDonough organized in Frankfurt in June to celebrate Emmon's 85th birthday. Lovely pictures. And a number of us who couldn't be there were able to Skype in and greet Emmon and chat with him there. His site also includes a place for reminiscences.

  3. Bill Marsh said,

    December 6, 2014 @ 3:11 pm

    When Emmon came to UMass in 1973, he had a brief joint appointment at Hampshire College, where I had the honor and pleasure of being his colleague.

  4. Seonachan said,

    December 7, 2014 @ 12:32 am

    I took a course at UMass around 2000 that he co-taught on Eastern Algonquian linguistics, and in addition to the tidbits of Western Abenaki that I can still, improbably, summon up, I remember him as one of the kindest people I have ever met.

  5. Robin Cooper said,

    December 7, 2014 @ 7:42 am

    The last time I saw Emmon was at a conference in London. At the dinner somebody asked him what brought him to London. "I came for love," he replied. It seems to me that much of Emmon's life was motivated by love, both of people and ideas. I remember him as an inspiring teacher who was willing to entertain crazy ideas and able to show that, actually, they weren't so crazy after all. I will miss him.

  6. Maureen Coffey said,

    December 7, 2014 @ 8:13 am

    "… North American languages …" Haisla and Hoelderlin – he truly did cover an amazing variety of subjects. Will now try and get hold of a copy of the informal lectures, having struggled with Montague so far … ;-). Thanks and condolences.

  7. Donald Freeman said,

    December 7, 2014 @ 6:57 pm

    I first met Emmon at a conference in Austin when we were just starting the recruitment of faculty to start the UMass Amherst department of linguistics. I tried hard to get him, but couldn't — we were at too early a stage in our development — ; in the early 70s, Jay Keyser and Barbara Partee brought Emmon on board.

    He was exactly the combination of superb scholar and inspiring teacher that has marked the department's faculty appointments from that day to this. Emmon was always willing to entertain new ideas, and always ready to help reshape them where they went astray. He was a gentle and kind man. I will miss him profoundly.

  8. Barbara Partee said,

    December 7, 2014 @ 10:11 pm

    Wynn asked me to ask everyone who has posted comments here (or who posts comments here later) to please also put a copy of your comments onto the memorial site that Jim Blevins set up, which may well become the permanent memorial site, and the principal place for putting reminiscences and tributes. That site also has links to other memorials and obituaries. The URL is http://emmonbach.info/.
    Update: The permanent memorial site will be the one at UMass Amherst: http://blogs.umass.edu/linguist/emmon-bach-in-memoriam/
    So please post comments there!

  9. Irina Nikolaeva said,

    December 8, 2014 @ 11:33 am

    The Linguistics Department at SOAS, with which Emmon was associated for many years, is deeply saddened by the news. That’s what some members of the department said:

    “I share the sadness and take consolation in the fact that Emmon had a long life, filled with fulfilling research till long after his retirement.”

    “That's very sad. He was a great mind. I'm glad I took that afternoon to go to Oxford to see him to discuss the nature of operations in grammar. He was a very kind, patient, and generous man. I will miss him.”

    “Very sad to hear of Emmon no longer being with us. I used to enjoy talking to him when he was around in SOAS. I will miss him.”

  10. Bob King said,

    December 8, 2014 @ 11:46 am

    Emmon and I shared an office for three years when I first went to Texas, which is one of the best things that ever happened to me linguistically or otherwise. Under Emmon's tutelage, with lots of help from Bob Harms and Stan Peters, I got up to speed on all the then new stuff coming out of MIT. I doubt I would have without Emmon's enthusiasm.
    But it was for his other qualities and talents that I remember him so fondly–we fished together, read Edward Sapir's poetry together, played squash together, picnicked together, mainly though just talked in the course of the day. I learned a lot. Modest, smart, above all wise and patient, he was the model of a caring academic.

  11. Hubert Heinen said,

    December 10, 2014 @ 12:09 am

    I met Emmon Bach when he began teaching at The University of Texas and I began as a graduate student there. He was always friendly, kind, and helpful. Together with some fellow students I persuaded him to give us a somewhat informal seminar on Hoelderlin's poety (we also had to get Win Lehmann, the department chair, to allow it). It was one of the most rewarding seminars I ever participated in.

  12. Barbara Partee said,

    December 11, 2014 @ 12:50 am

    Apologies that it has taken time to figure out where the permanent memorial site to Emmon will be hosted. The site I recommended earlier still exists, but it has been mutually agreed by all concerned that the permanent site is a UMass blog that is running now; the other site has a link to it. So please add comments to this site: http://blogs.umass.edu/linguist/emmon-bach-in-memoriam/.

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