Archive for Obituaries

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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Irwin Corey, R.I.P.

On Monday, Irwin Corey, the world's foremost authority, died at the age of 102. A characteristic clip from his later years:

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Zhou Youguang 1906-2017

Zhou xiansheng,

You were my dear friend for decades.  I wish that you had gone on living forever.  You will be sorely missed, but yours was a life well lived.

As the "Father of Pinyin", you have had an enormous impact on education and culture in China.  After you passed the century mark, you spoke out courageously in favor of democracy and reform.

Now, one day after your 111th birthday, you have departed, but you will always be in our hearts, brimming with light, as your name suggests.



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Lu Gusun, lexicographer and Shakespeare scholar (1940-2016)

Among many other accounts in English and in Chinese of Lu Gusun's 陆谷孙 passing on July 28, there are two articles in Shanghai Daily that are worthy of mention.  Yesterday, there was an initial, brief announcement,

"Noted English literature professor Lu Gusun passes away at 76" (7/28/16) by Chen Huizhi.

Today, there is a much longer article by Chen Huizhi and Wang Yanlin, "Lu Gusun, celebrated professor and lexicographer, dies aged 76" (7/29/16).

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R.I.P. Antonin Scalia

Antonin Scalia died this weekend at the age of 79. The impact of his life and death has already been widely discussed: see e.g. "The Death of Justice Scalia: Reactions and Analysis", NYT; Rick Hasen, "Justice Scalia’s Death and Implications for the 2016 Election, the Supreme Court and the Nation", Election Law Blog 2/13/2016; Ross Douthat, "Antonin Scalia, Conservative Legal Giant", NYT 2/13/2016; Nolan McCaskill, "The 11 most memorable Scalia quotes", Politico 2/14/2016; etc.

Here at Language Log, we've had multiple occasions over the years to discuss Justice Scalia's theories of linguistic interpretation in general, his opinions about usage, and a few of his own usages:

"Scalia on the meaning of meaning", 10/29/2005
"Is marriage similar or identical to itself?", 11/2/2005
"A result that no sensible person could have intended", 12/8/2005
"Everything is too appropriate these days", 4/5/2006
"Scalia's 'buddy-buddy' contractions", 5/12/2008
"The meaning of meaning: Fish v. Scalia", 1/4/2011
"Justice Breyer, Professor Austin, and the Meaning of 'Any'", 7/6/2011
"Scalia and Garner on legal interpretation", 7/17/2012
"Scalia's argle-bargle", 6/27/2013
"What did Justice Scalia mean?", 10/7/2013
"Antonin and Beppe", 3/4/2014

My personal favorites among Scalia's opinions are his dissent in Smith v. United States (91-8674) and his concurrent opinion in California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement v. Dillingham Construction (95-789), which brilliantly apply and simultaneously subvert his textualist theory of legal interpretation; and his response to those who questioned his impartiality.


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R.I.P. John Holm (1943-2015)

Today's New York Times includes an obituary for the pioneering creolist John Holm, with some remembrances from our own Sally Thomason.

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R.I.P Yogi Berra

Beatrice Santorini's Linguistic Humor page has a good collection of sayings attributed to Yogi Berra (1925-2015). Maybe the most relevant one today is "Always go to other people's funerals, otherwise they won't come to yours".

I won't be able to attend Yogi's funeral, but I'll link to his NYT obituary.

Update — and to Ben Zimmer at Slate, "Yogi Berra Turned Linguistic Vice into Virtue with His Cock-Eyed Tautologies".

Update #2 — "Yogi was an anchor baby".


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