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LINGUIST List 20.2568

Tue Jul 21 2009

All: Obituary: Erica García, 1934-2009

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        1.    Ellen Contini-Morava, Obituary: Erica García, 1934-2009

Message 1: Obituary: Erica García, 1934-2009
Date: 21-Jul-2009
From: Ellen Contini-Morava <elc9jvirginia.edu>
Subject: Obituary: Erica García, 1934-2009
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We grieve to announce the passing of Erica C. García, of cardiac arrest in
the early hours of July 5, 2009 in Leiden, the Netherlands. She had
returned to Holland from Italy (her home since her retirement from Leiden
University in 1999) to do research in the university library. She had just
finished correcting the final proofs of what must be regarded as the magnum
opus of her 40-year-long linguistic career, her 300-page book entitled The
Motivated Syntax of Arbitrary Signs: Cognitive Constraints on Spanish
Clitic Clustering (John Benjamins, in press). The theoretical point of the
book, and the theme of many if not most of her numerous articles on many
topics, is that the only arbitrariness in Language is that of the
linguistic sign, and that phenomena which others have treated as products
of an arbitrary syntax (as in various versions of generative grammar and
other formal schools of linguistics) are more profitably regarded as the
product of the meaning of the sign or signs in question and the
non-arbitrary interpretive or compositional routines motivated by those
meanings. There is, in other words, no ''machinery for machinery's sake''
in Language. As she states in the conclusion of her forthcoming book:

''Language is, fundamentally, a phenomenon of the 'third type'..., i.e. an
unintended human-social product, shaped in invisible-hand fashion through
and in its actual performance...'Competence' and 'performance' can thus
hardly be kept apart, for they coexist in the same mind, and one's own and
others' performance can always be (re)interpreted as evidence of what the
'language' itself is like.

This indeterminacy is truly fundamental, for syntactic versatility is
inexorably required by the unpredictability of language users'
communicative needs, whose vagaries constantly require improvised - and
hence iconic - syn-tactic expression. Communicative openness and
versatility have a cost, i.e. the cognitive effort required by
com-position, in both production and interpretation.

Cognitively economical solutions of communicative problems can be expected
to enjoy a quantitative edge in use: that favours their rote-recall, and
may eventually result in re-analysis of a con-struct as a structurally
'arbitrary' unit. As often pointed out, grammatical change is a one-way
street from iconic com-position, where calculus plays a dominant role, to
the simple retrieval of an arbitrary symbol...The critical shift presumably
takes place when the retrieval of an (unanalyzed complex) item proves
cognitively more economic than actual calculus of the sequence..., but the
cognitive cost of competing alternatives cannot be gauged without some idea
of what synchronically motivates the choice of one as against another
communicative alternative.''

Erica García received her Ph.D. from the Columbia University Department of
Linguistics in 1964, during what has been called that Department's 'Golden
Age', with such scholars as Robert Austerlitz, William Diver, Marvin
Herzog, William Labov, John Lotz, and Uriel Weinreich. In the early years,
she was associated with the approach to linguistics originated by Diver and
which has since come to be known as the 'Columbia School;' cf.
Contini-Morava and Sussman Goldberg (1995) and Davis, Gorup, and Stern
(2006). Her first book-length attempt to deal with Spanish clitic pronouns,
The Role of Theory in Linguistic Analysis (1975), dates from this period.
After leaving Columbia in 1971, she taught until 1979 at the City
University of New York (Lehman College and Graduate Center), then moved to
Leiden University, where she became Associate Professor (1979) and
Professor (1992) in the Department of Languages and Cultures of Latin
America. She was also a member of the editorial board of Lingua from 1983
to 1996.

Brilliant, fierce, intolerant of intellectual dishonesty and incompetence,
Erica refused to play the non-threatening, secondary role which women were
expected to play in academe in the 1970s. Those who studied with her or who
asked her for critical comments on their manuscripts discovered that she
was unrelentingly thorough in matters of both theory and data, uncovering
every weakness in fact and argumentation, no matter what language was the
topic. There was many a chuckle over Geoff Nunberg's cartoon of her
roasting a hapless seminar participant in a cauldron, captioned ''The
Inhuman Factor''. However, no matter how unpleasant it might have been to
endure the roasting, the result was always a great improvement over the
earlier draft. Those students at Columbia or CUNY who learned to do
linguistics by writing Master's Essays or dissertations under her guidance
learned full well what she meant when she would comment on the perceived
slovenly work of some linguist giving a talk that, ''The trouble with
Linguist X is that s/he has never written a Master's Essay.''

A complete bibliography of Erica García's work must await publication of a
much more complete obituary than this brief notice could be. Her interests
ranged from the history of English to psycholinguistics to many aspects of
Spanish grammar. She published in such varied collections as Discourse and
Syntax (1979), Discourse Perspectives on Syntax (1981), New Vistas in
Grammar: Invariance and Variation (1991), Studies in Language Variation
(1977), and Studies in Romance Linguistics (1986). Her articles also
appeared in such journals as Language, Folia Linguistica, the Journal of
Psycholinguistic Research, Lexis, Lenguaje en Contexto, Lingua,
Linguistics, Linguistische Berichte, and Neuphilologische Mitteilungen.

References:

Contini-Morava, Ellen and Barbara Sussman Goldberg (eds.) 1995. Meaning as
Explanation: Advances in Linguistic Sign Theory. Berlin and New York:
Mouton de Gruyter.

Davis, Joseph; Radmila J. Gorup and Nancy Stern. (eds.) 2006. Advances in
Functional Linguistics: Columbia School beyond its origins. Amsterdam: John
Benjamins.

García, Erica. 1975. The Role of Theory in Linguistic Analysis: the Spanish
pronoun system. Amsterdam: North Holland.

(in press). The Motivated Syntax of Arbitrary Signs: cognitive constraints
on Spanish clitic clustering. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

***************************************
Robert S. Kirsner
Department of Germanic Languages
212 Royce Hall - UCLA
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1539 USA

Ellen Contini-Morava
Department of Anthropology
University of Virginia
Charlottesville, VA 22904-4120 USA

Linguistic Field(s): Not Applicable

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