Archive for Obituaries

Martin Kay, 1935-2021

I learned about Martin Kay's recent passing from a brief obit on the ACL's web site — Tim Baldwin, "Vale Martin Kay":

It is with a profound sense of loss that, on behalf of the ACL Exec, I announce the passing of Martin Kay on August 7, 2021.

Martin was a pioneer and visionary of computational linguistics, in the truest sense of those terms. He made seminal contributions to the field in areas including parsing, unification grammars, finite state methods, and machine translation.

Martin was educated at the University of Cambridge, before moving to the USA and working at Rand Corporation from 1961 to 1972. He was Chair of the Department of Computer Science at University of California Irvine from 1972 to 1974, before moving to the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). In 1985, he took up a position as Professor at Stanford University, and split his time between Xerox PARC and Stanford until 2002.

Martin was awarded the ACL Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005, and was Chair of the International Committee for Computational Linguistics from 1984 to 2016. But perhaps equally for those who had the good fortune of knowing him personally or attending an event that he spoke at, he was a warm, generous, extraordinarily funny, disarmingly down-to-earth man whose loss is felt keenly.

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Lila Gleitman, 1929-2021

We join scores of friends and colleagues around the world in mourning the passing of Lila R. Gleitman, Professor Emerita of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.

Lila was widely recognized as a brilliant and trailblazing thinker, writer, and teacher, but she was also, famously, a larger than life character with an incomparable wit — “an awful lot of fun to hang around with,” as Ben Zimmer writes. We know how lucky we were to count her as a close family friend, and, in the years since Henry Gleitman’s passing, a regular dinner companion.  We relied on her lifetime of experience and considerable wisdom, and reciprocated any way we could; and we are far from alone in this. She often recounted in her inimitable way aspects of research along with consequential events in the history of linguistics, much of which is included in an article we helped prepare, along with Barbara Partee, for the Annual Review of Linguistics.

She was a student of Zellig Harris and a peer of Noam Chomsky when structuralism was giving way to generative linguistics. From that pivotal moment in history, she became a major catalyst for shifting the study of child language away from its then-stigmatized association with mothers in the private sphere to a place in the academy from which it would illuminate theories of language acquisition, word meaning, and thought itself. Incredibly, she started down the path to this accomplishment in the 1950s as a woman, wife, and mother — one whose determination and confidence were undaunted by obstacles she met along the way. (She would make us strike this paragraph as too much praise if she could.)

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R.I.P. Daniel Kane (1948-2021)

If you ever had a question about Jurchen (a long extinct Tungusic language, script, people, and dynasty [1115-1234; also called the Jin]) or Khitan (a long extinct Para-Mongolic language, script, people, and dynasty [916-1125; also called the Liao]), chances are that people would advise you, "Ask Danny Kane".

"World-renowned linguist an expert in ancient Chinese script", The Sydney Morning Herald (6/18/21)

At his primary school in 1950s Melbourne, Danny Kane would ask the kids from Italy, Poland, Hungary and elsewhere how to say things in their language. He became quite fluent in Italian and picked up Latin from the liturgy at church, pursuing it formally in high school along with French.

Home life was hard. His father had been a bank officer but was thrown out of work in the Great Depression and never regained a sound financial footing. Danny recalled living in houses in Richmond with holes in the floors and walls, and an army greatcoat for a winter blanket. With the help of Labor MP Jim Cairns, the family got public housing, but Danny was obliged to leave school at 16 to help with money.

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Annals of homophony

"Bunny Wailer, Reggae Pioneer With the Wailers, Dies at 73", NYT 3/2/2021:

Bunny Wailer, the last surviving original member of the Wailers, the Jamaican trio that helped establish and popularize reggae music — its other founders were Bob Marley and Peter Tosh — died on Tuesday at a hospital in Kingston, Jamaica. He was 73. […]

Formed in 1963, when its members were still teenagers, the Wailers were among the biggest stars of ska, the upbeat Jamaican style that borrowed from American R&B. On early hits like “Simmer Down” and “Rude Boy,” the three young men — who in those days wore suits and had short-cropped hair — sang in smooth harmony, threading some social commentary in with their onomatopoeic “doo-be doo-be doo-bas.”

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Remembering Richard Montague

Ivano Caponigro has created a page memorializing Richard Montague on the fiftieth anniversary of his death.

You should go read the whole page, which includes many pictures, a chapter from Ivano's in-process Montague Biography (the chapter title is "The birth of a new passion: natural language 1966"), and a YouTube video presenting Montague's 1967 explanation of his turn towards natural language.

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R.I.P. Geoff Nunberg

Geoffrey Nunberg died earlier today after a long illness.

You can sample his writing via his Google Scholar page, all the way back to his 1977 PhD thesis The Pragmatics of Reference. You can read or listen to a sample of his Fresh Air pieces; check out the links on his old Berkeley web page; delve into his Amazon author page; or look for his insights and influences in many other places.

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RIP, Michael Silverstein (1945-2020)

Michael Silverstein, a titan in the field of linguistic anthropology, passed away on Friday. UChicago News has an obituary today.

Prof. Michael Silverstein, a leading University of Chicago anthropologist who made groundbreaking contributions to linguistic anthropology and helped define the field of sociolinguistics, died July 17 in Chicago following a battle with brain cancer. He was 74.

The Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor of Anthropology, Linguistics and Psychology, Silverstein was known for his highly influential research on language-in-use as a social and cultural practice and for his long-term fieldwork on Native language speakers of the Pacific Northwest and of Aboriginal Australia. Most recently, Silverstein examined the effects of globalization, nationalism and other social forces on local speech communities.

“Over a half-century at the University of Chicago, he produced a body of work that fundamentally changed the place of linguistics in the field, with foundational contributions to the understanding of language structure, sociolinguistics and semiotics, as well as the history of linguistics and anthropology,” said Prof. Joe Masco, chair of the Department of Anthropology. “His erudition, sense of humor, love of scholarship, of teaching, of conversation and substantive debate is legendary and helped establish the intellectual strength of UChicago in all the many different fields of which he was part.”

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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. See also "The very model for historical comparison", by Nancy Dray.


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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