07 December 2014

Emmon Bach

With a heavy heart, WHISC announces that Emmon Bach died of pneumonia on November 28 at his home in Oxford. Emmon retired in 1992 from UMass, where he was Sapir Professor of Linguistics, and subsequently held a position as Professorial Research Associate at SOAS until 2007, when he became affiliated with Oxford University. He joined the UMass Linguistics department in 1973, two years after its inception, as a half-time Visiting Professor and became a full-time member in 1975. He served as department head from 1977 to 1985.

Emmon worked mostly in syntax, semantics and morphology, and he was instrumental in giving UMass’s linguistics department the porous boundary between syntax and semantics that it continues to enjoy. He wrote the first textbook on transformational grammar in 1964. His second text, Syntactic Theory, in 1974, set a kind of benchmark for the many on syntactic theory that have followed. In 1989, he wrote a gentle introduction to formal semantics, Informal Lectures on Formal Semantics, aimed at bringing formal semantics to a wider audience. 

A great deal of present work in syntax and semantics has the shape it does because of Emmon. His work on transitive verb phrases in English in the 1970s, for example, led him to an operation he dubbed “right-wrap” which combines a verb and its object in a non-concatenative way. This idea, and the effects it captures, became built into HPSG frameworks and later, by way of Richard Larson’s work, into transformational grammars. His important 1986 paper “The algebra of events” provides a framework for thinking about eventualities that continues to shape research in this area, as does his 1981 paper “On time, tense, and aspect: an essay in English metaphysics.” Much of his work in the last couple decades has been on word grammar, where he has been bringing the toolkits used for analyzing the syntax and semantics of sentence grammar into the word domain. His most recent work includes two papers co-authored with his wife, Wynn Chao: “The metaphysics of natural language(s)” and “Semantic types across languages,” both published in 2012.

Emmon also had a career-long active engagement in linguistic fieldwork. He began working on the Wakashan language Haisla in the 1970s, visiting Kitimat British Columbia, where the Haisla speaking community is, off and on for the rest of his life. For several years in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he became associated with the University of Northern British Columbia, where he taught linguistics and cotaught Haisla. It's his work on Haisla, a polysynthetic language, that informs much of his research on word grammar.

You can learn more about Emmon’s life at his UMass website, and at the obituary on Language Log, here, at which a growing number of testimonials are accumulating. Oxford University’s notice is here, and Jim Blevins has put together a preliminary website for Emmon here. His funeral will be Saturday, December 13th, at St. John’s Chapel in Oxford. Go here for more information. It is likely that there will be other events in memory of Emmon, and WHISC will report them as they form.

Emmon was a dear friend to generations of students and colleagues at UMass. He will be greatly missed.