Obituary: Petr Sgall (1926-2019)

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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.

Petr Sgall was born in in České Budějovice in southern
 Bohemia, but 
spent most of his
 childhood in the small
 town Ústí nad Orlicí in
 eastern Bohemia and 
lived in Prague from the time of his 
university studies.

He studied typology under Rudolf Skalička, with a PhD dissertation on the
 development of
 inflection in Indo-
European languages. His habilitation thesis in 1958 was based on his postdoctoral study in Cracow on the infinitive in Old Indian; it earned him a position as docent (associate professor) of general and Indoeuropean linguistics at Charles University.

At the beginning of the 1960s, Sgall was one of the first European scholars who became familiar with the newly emerging Chomskyan generative grammar. He immediately understood the importance of an explicit description of language, but at the same time, he was concerned that the early generative approach lacked a full appreciation of the functions of language (see his analysis of Prague School functionalism in his paper in the renewed series Prague Linguistic Circle Papers, the Travaux linguistiques de Prague Vol. I (1964)). Based on the Praguian tenets, Sgall formulated and developed an original framework of generative description of language, the so-called Functional Generative Description (FGD). His papers in the early sixties and his book presenting FGD (Sgall 1967) were the foundation stones of an original school of theoretical and computational linguistics that has been alive and flourishing in Prague since then. Sgall's innovative approach builds on three main pillars: (i) dependency syntax, (ii) information structure as an integral part of the underlying linguistic structure, and (iii) attention to the distinction between linguistic meaning and cognitive content.

The linguistics group that was established under his leadership in 1959 flourished in an interdisciplinary environment that included both the Philosophical Faculty of Charles University and the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics until political difficulties under the Communist regime led to his removal from his post as head of the Laboratory of Algebraic Linguistics, and nearly led to his expulsion from the University and the dissolution of the linguistics group. The Laboratory was disbanded, but courageous colleagues in the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics enabled the transfer of the staff of the Laboratory to that Faculty, where it thrived and became the Institute of Formal and Applied Linguistics (UFAL). Throughout the difficult years from 1972 until the fall of Communism in 1989 (with gradual improvements starting in the early 1980s), Sgall helped the group maintain ties with many international colleagues and continue to develop their productive work in formal and functional linguistics and pioneering computational applications.

I remember from visits in 1981, 1985, and a semester in 1989 how weekly seminars were held at 5pm so that talented young colleagues who were barred from university participation could attend after finishing their work days in factories and technical institutes. The mutual dedication and devotion of the members of Sgall's group to one another and to their research was remarkable to see and feel, and was what attracted me most to pursue further collaboration with them.  With the help of a post-communist period US-Czech research grant that let us have multiple visits in both directions over the several years together with some graduate students and junior colleagues, Petr, Eva Hajičová, and I published a book together, Topic-Focus Articulation, Tripartite Structures, and Semantic Content (Kluwer, 1998).)

In the post-Communist era starting in 1990, the group was able to maintain UFAL, finally with permission to teach and to have their own graduate students, and they were also able to establish the Institute of Theoretical and Computational Linguistics back in the Philosophical Faculty. They could then regularize their ties with many colleagues and programs abroad, including our collaboration mentioned above, a long-term cooperative computational linguistics program with Johns Hopkins University and a collaboration between the Prague Dependency Treebank and the Penn Treebank.

Also in the post-Communist era after 1989, Professor Sgall was able to travel freely, hold guest professorships at foreign universities and a fellowship semester at NIAS, and to receive some of the public recognition he long deserved. He was elected a member of Academia Europea, awarded an Alexander von Humboldt Research Prize, and received Honorary Doctorates from the Institut National des Langues Orientales in Paris and from Hamburg University. He was named an Honorary Member of the Linguistic Society of America in 2002.

Petr Sgall will be remembered with admiration, respect, and gratitude by generations of students and colleagues for his untiring and successful personal and intellectual leadership of the development of Prague School linguistics, helping it to maintain a valued place in the contemporary international linguistics world, and for his own major contributions to typological studies and to theoretical and mathematical linguistics.

An obituary written by his Prague colleagues, from which the photograph above and some parts of this text were taken, can be found at http://ufal.mff.cuni.cz/obituary-petr-sgall .



5 Comments

  1. Bill Benzon said,

    June 6, 2019 @ 10:36 am

    I met him once when he visited Buffalo in the mid-1970s, where I was a student of David Hays's. Hays thought quite highly of him.

  2. Philip Taylor said,

    June 8, 2019 @ 6:48 am

    The hyperlink from the "Mag said" header of the preceding reply leads me to believe that it is, sadly, not a bona fide endorsement of the late Professor Emeritus Sgall.

  3. Barbara Partee said,

    June 10, 2019 @ 11:59 am

    Philip Taylor, thanks. I've deleted it and marked it as spam.

  4. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 11, 2019 @ 10:59 am

    I am especially struck by the lovely yet poignant detail of deliberately holding seminars at 5 pm for the benefit of those excluded from "official" scholarly positions for political reasons and working factory jobs instead. It reminded me via free association of this vignette from a Western academic's memory of his first trip to occupied Prague in the late Seventies:

    "In that room was a battered remnant of Prague's intelligentsia—old professors in their shabby waistcoats, long-haired poets, fresh-faced students who had been denied admission to the university for their parents' political 'crimes,' priests and religious in plain clothes, a would-be rabbi, even a psychoanalyst. They all belonged, I discovered, to the same profession: that of stoker. Some stoked boilers in hospitals, others in apartment buildings; one stoked at a railway station, another in a school. Some stoked where there were no boilers to stoke, and these imaginary boilers came to be, for me, a fitting symbol of the Communist economy."

  5. Barbara Partee said,

    June 15, 2019 @ 5:54 pm

    Thank you, J.W. Brewer. That sounds very close to my experience (in the early 80s). And it's consistent with Havel's play Audience. As Wikipedia summarizes: "Ferdinand Vaněk first appeared in the play Audience in 1975 as a stand-in for Havel. Vaněk, like Havel, was a dissident playwright, forced to work in a brewery because his writing has been banned by the Czechoslovak Communist regime."

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