Stanford remembers Ivan Sag

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As reported earlier this month by Arnold Zwicky, the world of linguistics lost Ivan Sag after a three-year fight against cancer. Now Corrie Goldman of The Humanities at Stanford provides a more in-depth look at Sag's life, quoting many colleagues (including a couple of Language Loggers) who worked — and played — with him.

A few excerpts:

A fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Linguistic Society of America, Sag will be remembered for his intellectual integrity and infectious enthusiasm for the field of linguistics.

"Ivan was really passionate about linguistics, about understanding what makes human language possible, and he had great charisma for communicating this passion. You couldn't be around him without wanting to understand the answers to the questions he was always asking," said his colleague in the Department of Linguistics Professor Dan Jurafsky.

Intersecting with cognitive science and psycholinguistics, Sag's research advanced natural language processing (NLP) and contributed to computational linguistics by providing grammars that were sufficiently explicit to be implemented on computers.

In addition to his academic work, Sag will be fondly remembered as the founder and leader of Dead Tongues, the unofficial rock 'n' roll band of the Department of Linguistics.

Jurafsky, who played in Dead Tongues with Sag, said it was much more than a department band – an intellectual community where band members spent as much time "discussing linguistics in Ivan's kitchen during breaks" as they did rehearsing.

Students, Jurafsky recalled, were generally singing and playing lead guitar. "That was just like Ivan: always making sure the students were out in front, showing off their stuff to the world."

Colleagues said Sag was nothing short of a keystone in the linguistics world, mentoring students well into their careers and rallying the linguistics community to promote the discipline.

"He got things done: workshops organized, contacts made, groups of people brought together, collaborative projects developed," said linguistics scholar Geoff Pullum, a longtime academic collaborator and friend of Sag's.

"The whole profession will mourn him," Pullum said.

"Ivan had a great wisdom for helping students develop the ability to criticize constructively, whether it was a paper they were reading or just questioning each other's assumptions," said Jurafsky.

Sag rarely missed an opportunity to confer with his students – past and present – and regularly invited them to his home. "Ivan would cook students dinner and have classes in the evening and talk about grammar over beer, and throw a barbecue or a jam session if [former students] were in town," Jurafsky said.

Many of Sag's former students returned to Stanford in April 2013 to attend a three-day workshop in honor of the 40th anniversary of Sag's entrance into professional life. Officially titled "Structure and Evidence in Linguistics," the event came to be known as "Ivan Fest."

Sag was one of the originating developers of Generalized Phrase Structure Grammar (GPSG), Head-Driven Phrase Structure Grammar (HPSG) and Sign-Based Construction Grammar (SBCG), with each stage developing out of the last.

Pullum, who co-authored Generalized Phrase Structure Grammar (1985) as well as numerous papers with Sag, called him "an idea generator" and a "master of syntactic and semantic data," who was "constantly enthusiastic, always eager to investigate further, consummately honest about whether an analysis worked or not."

Among the festivities at April's Ivan Fest was a performance by Dead Tongues. In this video, Geoff Nunberg takes lead vocals on "The HPSG Man" (to the tune of "Hoochie Coochie Man"). Sag plays keyboard, Dan Jurafsky is on drums, and the guitarists are John Beavers, Steve Wechsler, Peter Sells, and Geoff Pullum (lingering just off-camera to the left). Courtesy of Ste­fan Müller, you can find lyrics here and photos here.

1 Comment

  1. Rod Johnson said,

    September 29, 2013 @ 1:16 pm

    Geoff plays a thinline Tele, nice.

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