Archive for Obituaries

R.I.P. Knud Lambrecht

I learned yesterday that Knud Lambrecht died on Friday 9/6. As you can see from his Google Scholar page, his scientific work centered on an important area that deserves more than the (already considerable) attention that it gets from linguists — the relations between "information structure" and the form of sentences.

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Obituary: Petr Sgall (1926-2019)

Professor Emeritus Petr Sgall, professor of Indo-European, Czech studies, and general linguistics at Charles University in Prague, passed away on May 28, 2019 in Prague, the day after his 93rd birthday.

Over a lifetime of distinguished work in theoretical, mathematical and computational linguistics, he did more than any other single person to keep the Prague School linguistic tradition alive and dynamically flourishing. He was the founder of mathematical and computational linguistics in the Czech Republic, and the principal developer of the Praguian theory of Functional Generative Description as a framework for the formal description of language, which has been applied primarily to Czech, but also to English and in typological studies of a range of languages.

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The Very Model for Historical Comparison

Below is a guest post by Nancy Dray, following up on Brian Joseph's obituary for Eric Hamp (3/4/2019).


Deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Professor Eric P. Hamp, I thought I would repost something—my parody lyrics for "The Very Model for Historical Comparison"—that I wrote more than 25 years ago, in large part as a tribute to him (mocking his exact opposite). These lyrics were not just written to celebrate Eric and his work: writing them was a path through which I came to know him, not just as a kind and interesting professor but as the extraordinary observer, thinker, poet, conversationalist, and human being that he was.

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Eric Pratt Hamp (11/16/1920 – 2/17/2019)

This obituary is a guest post by Brian Joseph.


The linguistics world suffered a huge loss on February 17 when Eric Pratt Hamp, a giant on the American and global linguistic scene, passed away at the age of 98. Eric was one-of-a-kind, an amazing scholar and polymath, a specialist in historical linguistics and in the history of a number of individual languages, but a contributor to theoretical issues as well, especially in structural linguistics. He understood the ins and outs of language change, arguing for a balance between system-internal factors and system-external factors, i.e. language contact, as the source of innovations, and applied his knowledge judiciously and carefully, working out the details of both language-internal and contact-induced changes for numerous languages, perhaps most tellingly those of the Balkan peninsula.

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Stanley Insler, 1937-2019

Stanley Insler died unexpectedly last night in Yale-New Haven hospital.  He was Professor Emeritus of Linguistics at Yale University, the Edward E. Salisbury Professor of Sanskrit and Comparative Philology in the Department of Classics.

Stanley was a scholar of ancient Indo-Iranian languages and texts.  His research focused on Sanskrit, Vedic, Avestan, Zarathustra and the history of Zoroastrianism, metrical texts of the Pali Buddhist Canon, Indian narrative literature, Silk Road Studies, and the Gāthās of Zarathustra.  Courses he taught included "Old Iranian:  Avestan" and "Vedic Poetry".  Among his many publications are The Gāthās of Zarathustra, Acta Iranica 8 (Tehéran-Lìege:  Bibliothèque Pahlavi; Leiden: diffusion E. J. Brill, [1974] 1975); "The Love of Truth in Ancient Iran," Parsiana (September, 1989), 18-20; chapters on "Human Behavior and Good Thinking" and "Zarathustra's Vision" in An Introduction to the Gathas of Zarathustra, ed. Dina G. McIntyre (Pittsburgh, 1989-90); "The Prakrit Ablative in -ahi." Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 72-73 (1991-92), 15-21; and "Rhythmic Effects in Pali Morphology," Die Sprache, 36 (1994), 70-93.

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Morris Halle R.I.P.

Morris Halle passed away early this morning: born 7/23/1923, died 4/2/2018.

The abstract from "Morris Halle: An Appreciation", Annual Review of Linguistics 2015, describes his influence on the field:

Morris Halle has been one of the most influential figures in modern linguistics. This is partly due to his scientific contributions in many areas: insights into the sound patterns of English and Russian, ideas about the nature of metered verse, ways of thinking about phonological features and rules, and models for argumentation about phonological description and phonological theory. But he has had an equally profound influence through his role as a teacher and mentor, and this personal influence has not been limited to students who follow closely in his intellectual and methodological footsteps. It has been just as strong—or stronger—among researchers who disagree with his specific ideas and even his general approach, or who work in entirely different subfields. This appreciation is a synthesis of reflections from colleagues and former students whom he has formed, informed, and inspired.

If you don't have an institutional or individual subscription, a .pdf version of that article is here.

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Dick Oehrle R.I.P.

Richard T. Oehrle died on Wednesday. He was one of my oldest friends — I met him in 1965, when I was a first-year undergraduate and neither of us had any idea that we would end up in related fields.  (Dick's undergraduate and master's degrees were in English and Comparative Literature, before he started grad school in Linguistics at MIT in 1970.) His many contributions to linguistics can be glimpsed in a list of his publications, from his 1976 PhD dissertation, "The grammatical status of the English dative alternation", to four chapters in a 2003 book co-edited with Geert-Jan M. Kruijff, Resource-Sensitivity, Binding and Anaphora.

And one clue to the past 15 years of his career trajectory is offered by his entry in that book's list of "Contributing Authors":

Richard T. Oehrle lives in Berkeley, California, where he frequently contemplates questions of language, logic, and computation while enjoying the beauty of the East Bay hills.

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A constant, guiding presence

Tomorrow there will be a memorial service for Aravind Joshi, who died on the last day of 2017 ("R.I.P. Aravind Joshi", 1/1/2018).  Martha Palmer, who is flying in from Colorado for the event, sent me this remembrance:

Aravind was such a constant, guiding presence in my life, from 1980-2017.  Always so kind and gentle, and so full of wise and considered advice, on every subject from linguistics and automata theory to life choices and university politics.  And changeless. Always there, at every conference, every PI meeting, with a smile, a chuckle and a twinkle in his eye, taking great delight in the vagaries of human nature and the sea changes in government funding.

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R.I.P. Aravind Joshi

I learned this morning that Aravind Joshi died yesterday at his home.

Among Aravind's many awards are the 1997 IJCAI Award for Research Excellence; the first ACL Lifetime Achievement Award, in 2002; the 2003 David E. Rumelhart Prize; and the 2005 Benjamin Franklin Medal, "[f]or his fundamental contributions to our understanding of how language is represented in the mind, and for developing techniques that enable computers to process efficiently the wide range of human languages."

Among his many fundamental contributions are the invention of Tree Adjoining Grammar, a "mildly context-sensitive" grammatical formalism that provides enough power to handle the phenomena of human language syntax while remaining computationally tractable; and the elucidation and application of Centering Theory, a framework for exploring "relationships among focus of attention, choice of referring expression, and perceived coherence of utterances within a discourse segment".

Aravind's personal influence has been just as important as his intellectual contributions. In nearly every academic and industrial research group in computational linguistics around the world today, you'll find his former students, postdocs, and colleagues. And you'll also find Aravind's connections widespread among theoretical linguists, sociolinguists,  psycholinguists, and even philosophers interested in language.

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Paul Zukofsky

This strikes me as an unusual obituary: Margalit Fox, "Paul Zukofsky, Prodigy Who Became, Uneasily, a Virtuoso Violinist, Dies at 73", NYT 6/20/2017. It massively violates the precept de mortuis nil nisi bonum, describing its subject at great length as an "automaton" who was "deeply ill at ease with world"; an "arch-bridge troll", full of "unbridled hubris", "disdain for those less gifted than he", and "an ample sense of self-worth"; "swift to run to judgment", "meanspirited, sarcastic, rather bitter"; someone who would "look at [his audience] with utter contempt", and on and on.

Margalit Fox certainly found plenty of sources for these judgments. But this litany of bitter score-settling is completely at odds with my own experience of Paul Zukofsky.

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Four candles for Ronnie Corbett

Ronnie Corbett died on March 31, 2016, a year after his diagnosis with Lou Gehrig's disease. A long-planned memorial service for him was held a couple of days ago in Westminster Abbey. That's an honor reserved for only the most important figures in British life. At the front of the church during the service was the famous armchair in which he always sat to do his featured monologue (generally a ridiculous shaggy-dog-story joke with many digressions) during the TV show he did with Ronnie Barker, called The Two Ronnies. And just as at his funeral more than a year ago, four candles were displayed along with the chair. It was an allusion to the truly legendary sketch in which Corbett and Barker riffed on almost-indistinguishable phonetic strings in working-class vernacular Southern British English — pairs like four candlesfork handles. In the unlikely event you've never watched it (it's been mentioned on Language Log a few times, of course, especially by commenters), watch it now, and remember one of the finest of British comedians — perhaps the most loved of them all.

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Tribute: Burton Watson, 1925 – 2017

During the second half of the twentieth century and well into the twenty-first century, Burton Watson translated a wide range of works of premodern Chinese literature into highly readable, reliable English. His numerous published translations span the gamut of Chinese texts from history to poetry, prose, philosophy, and religion.  He was also an accomplished translator from Japanese, especially of poetry and religious literature.

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R.I.P. Osamu Fujimura (1927-2017)

In 1975, Osamu Fujimura hired me as a Member of Technical Staff in his new Linguistics Research Department at Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, N.J.  I spent 15 formative years there, and I owe a great deal to the environment that he created.

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