Martin Kay, 1935-2021

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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.

I knew Martin mainly through his many influential publications — we only shared a few real-world interactions. But my most vivid memory of him is an informal observation, half a century ago, about the interpretation of intonational focus in certain phrases. See "Another step towards gender equality" (8/20/2006) and "Dogless in Albion" (9/12/2011). From the second of those posts:

Whenever I visit England, I'm struck by the fact that escalators, moving walkways, and other public conveyances commonly have signs requiring users to carry dogs. I also always remember Martin Kay's observation that phrasal stress on the subject ("DOGS must be carried") suggests the absurd interpretation that "you can't use this facility unless you are carrying a dog", whereas stress on the verb remains consistent with the intended meaning "if you have a dog, you must carry it rather than have it go on its own feet".

As far as I know, this pattern is still pretty much a mystery, though there's a relevant literature, Quite a few of those publications attribute the example to one or another of Michael Halliday's works, though I've checked three of the alleged sources without finding it.

But it doesn't matter here whether Martin Kay invented this, or learned it from Halliday, or got it from a joke current  in British culture at large. The point is that it was typical of him to invent (or register) and transmit striking linguistic examples, just as he invented (or improved) and transmitted important technical problems and solutions in computational linguistics.

His publications list reminds me of the extraordinary breadth of his work, both in terms of its topics and its audiences.



  1. DCBob said,

    August 26, 2021 @ 5:26 pm

    That story about stress reminds me of an English journalist I met in DC many years ago, who was apoplectic about an American mattress advertisement he'd seen in with an attractive woman laying on a mattress proclaiming "I only sleep with the best". It didn't seem to occur to him that stress might substitute for word order.

  2. Stephen Goranson said,

    August 27, 2021 @ 6:06 am

    Though the copy here is in storage, and another source suggest, for dog carrying, M. A. K. Halliday, Intonation and Grammar in British English (1967) page 38.
    (masks must be worn)

  3. Andrew Usher said,

    August 28, 2021 @ 12:11 pm

    I regret to have to point out that that title really needs a comma or italics setting off vale – as it stands it can only be read as a full name, 'Vale Martin Kay'!


    Exactly what do you mean by that? The advertisement was surely a pun (both meanings would have the same stress), which that Englishman got and responded accordingly. What other interpretation is there?

  4. Philip Taylor said,

    August 28, 2021 @ 2:10 pm

    I think, Andrew, but I cannot be sure, that the English journalist was incensed by the misplaced "only" — he would have had it re-cast as "I sleep only with the best" because the woman was not saying that she restricts her activities with the best solely to sleeping (which is the meaning as actually cast) but sleeps (and quite possibly carries out other activities) only with the best. And of course, being English, I have enormous sympathy with his point of view.

  5. Andrew Usher said,

    August 28, 2021 @ 2:49 pm

    I see the point – but I think you want "I sleep with only the best" as 'sleep with' should not be broken up in the idiomatic meaning, and further "I sleep only with …" suggests an inability to sleep otherwise.

  6. Batchman said,

    August 28, 2021 @ 7:11 pm

    Two observations:

    1. Long ago when walking through the hallways of MIT during some room construction, I observed a sign saying "Please use the bathrooms on the second floor." I thought, "Well, if you insist, though I really have no need to go right now…"

    2. I once had a friend who habitually dressed in threadbare clothing, and I remarked upon a sign in a store entryway that I thought was suited just for him: "Shirts must be worn."

  7. Stephen Goranson said,

    August 29, 2021 @ 7:57 am

    According to an unconfirmed snippet at British Newspaper Archive:

    … madam?”! asked. “Well,” she replied, “I want to catch a train, but there is a large notice saying: Dogs must be carried on the escalators. A I haven’t a dog, how am I going to get down?” Sent by David Allum. …
    Published: Wednesday 31 January 1951
    Newspaper: Falkirk Herald
    County: Stirlingshire, Scotland

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