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LINGUIST List 22.1945

Thu May 05 2011

All: Obituary: Jean-Roger Vergnaud

Editor for this issue: Danielle St. Jean <daniellelinguistlist.org>

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        1.     Robert Freidin , Obituary: Jean-Roger Vergnaud

Message 1: Obituary: Jean-Roger Vergnaud
Date: 29-Apr-2011
From: Robert Freidin <freidinprinceton.edu>
Subject: Obituary: Jean-Roger Vergnaud
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The following obituary is posted in the context of the upcoming USC
Conference "Parallel Domains in Syntax and Phonology" (May 5-7) and
the USC May 8th Memorial to celebrate Jean-Roger Vergnaud's life
and work.

Jean-Roger Vergnaud
1945 - 2011

Jean-Roger Vergnaud, born in Valence, France on August 3rd
1945, died in Los Angeles on January 31st 2011, leaving behind much
major work unfinished. His death is an enormous loss for linguistics
and more poignantly for his wife and colleague Maria Luisa
Zubizarreta, his two sons Sebastian and Raphael and his nephew
Jacopo Grazzini Vergnaud, and for those of us who had the great
fortune to know him personally as colleagues, collaborators, students,
and friends.

In 1967 Jean-Roger received an engineering degree from L'Ecole
Polytechnique, the most prestigious engineering school in France,
entrance into which was via a competitive entrance exam that
required several years of grueling preparation. During his time at
the Ecole, he also took courses at the University of Paris (Faculté
des Sciences). In the following year he did graduate work in
mathematics, both pure and applied, and undergraduate work in
Phonétique Générale. Jean-Roger entered the graduate linguistics
program at MIT in 1969 and received his Ph.D. in 1974 for a
dissertation, French Relative Clauses, supervised by Noam Chomsky,
Morris Halle, and Ken Hale. In the same year he received a Doctorat
de 3éme cycle de Linguistique (the French equivalent of the Ph.D.)
from the University of Paris 7 for a dissertation supervised by
Maurice Gross. The core idea was the same in both dissertations, but
the French version was completely rewritten. In 1982 Jean-Roger
received a Doctorat d'Etat es-Sciences, specialité Informatique (in
Computer Science because there was no comparable degree in
modern linguistics at the time), based on a thesis supervised again by
Maurice Gross. This kind of thesis, which no longer exists, was the
highest degree in the French educational system, what was presented
beyond the Ph.D. to become a full professor. Three years later this
thesis was published by John Benjamins as Dépendences et niveaux
derepresentation en syntaxe.

Jean-Roger began his teaching career in 1968 as a lecturer
at the University of Paris 7. During the next decade and a half he
also lectured at the University of Paris 8 and at Ecole des Hautes
Etudes en Sciences Sociales (Paris). From 1970 to 1988 he was also
employed by C.N.R.S. in Paris, first as Associate Researcher and then
as Senior Researcher in the Computer Science Division. From 1979 to
1981 he was an Assistant Professor in the Department of Linguistics at
the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Starting in 1981 he was a
Research Affiliate at the M.I.T. Center for Cognitive Science and in
1983 he served as a Research Associate. In the academic year of
1985-1986 he had an appointment as Professor in the Department of
Linguistics at Tilburg University and in the following year joined the
faculty of the Linguistics Department at the University of Maryland as
a full professor. From 1988 until his death he was a member of the
faculty in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Southern
California as Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Humanities. He was a
participant in the USC computer science program (contributing to the
creation of a Computational Linguistics Master, initially funded by
the Sloan Foundation) as well as in the new USC program in the
cognitive sciences, which focuses on those aspects of language that
are of interest to psychoneurological theory.

In 1977, Jean-Roger joined Jan Koster and Henk van Riemsdijk to co-
author a manifesto for a new organization for generative linguistics in
Europe, GLOW (Generative Linguistics in the Old World). An endeavor
based in the Netherlands with the goal of furthering the study of
generative grammar particularly in Europe, GLOW has since its
inception been one of the leading organizations in linguistics
internationally, its annual meetings traveling as far north as Tromsø
and as far south as Morocco, and has led to the creation of a sister
organization under the rubric GLOW Asia in Japan, Korea and India.
GLOW is an enduring part of Vergnaud's legacy to linguistics. His
last participation involved the 2010 annual meeting in Poland, where
his student Katy McKinney-Bock presented their joint paper on
syntactic grafts.

Jean-Roger was one of the rare generative grammarians who
made major contributions to both phonology and syntax. In both fields
his work has always been concerned with foundational issues.

Jean-Roger's contributions to phonology take a definite syntactic
turn. His overarching project in phonology from the mid 1980s was to
move from a rule-based system to a principles and parameters model.
His 1985 article with Jonathan Kaye and Jean Lowenstamm initiates a
research program that "incorporates the view that phonology is to be
regarded as a system of universal principles defining a class of human
phonological systems." His 1987 book, co-authored with Morris Halle,
An Essay on Stress, focuses on the most syntactic of phonological
processes, proposing that stress assignment is determined by
hierarchical metrical constituents whose boundedness is
parameterized. This analysis proposes a recoverability condition for
constituent structure that involves head location and the direction of
government, transformations that move constituent boundaries, and
cyclic rules of stress assignment. Subsequent work with Kaye and
Lowenstamm (1990) employs a notion of phonological government to
characterize what is a possible syllable. Jean-Roger's last published
paper in phonology, "On a certain notion of 'occurrence:' the source of
metrical structure and much more" (2003), attempts to reverse the
trend in separating syntactic and phonological theory by proposing the
notion of "occurrence" as a shared foundational concept.

His first major contribution to syntax is his 1974 MIT Ph.D. dissertation
on French relative clauses, which pioneered the movement analysis of
these constructions, an analysis which, with some modifications, has
been the standard for over three and a half decades. His 1977 letter to
Noam Chomsky and Howard Lasnik about their manuscript of "Filters
and Control" showed how concepts of case and government can be
central to the formulation of general principles of grammar, leading to
Chomsky's Case Filter and beyond to a theory of syntactic government,
which formed the basis of much fruitful research on UG principles and
comparative grammar throughout the 1980s--including his joint paper
with Alain Rouveret on the distribution of clitics in French causative
constructions, which employed notions of case and government and
proposed an important alternative to the analysis of clause union
phenomena that relied on a device of restructuring. This letter, which
was published in a 2008 Festschrift in his honor, remains among the
most important documents in the intellectual history of the field.

His most recent, and regrettably unfinished, work in syntax was
devoted to designing a formal system to unify various parts of current
theory under a single architecture utilizing graph theory and based on
the idea that the fundamental linguistic relation involved an element
and its context. This work exemplifies the Pythagorean character of
syntax that might be achieved in pursuing the Galilean style in the
science of language, as Noam Chomsky's recent testimony makes
clear: "Jean-Roger was a superbly talented linguist, with numerous
major contributions to his credit. But the significance of his work went
far beyond his careful and influential technical achievements,
substantial as these were. His work was inspired by a penetrating
vision of what the study of language should strive to become, and how
it should find its place within the broader intellectual framework of
the understanding of the human mind. His work leaves a particularly
rich legacy to be explored by those who have been, and will be, the
beneficiaries of his insights. His work, and Jean-Roger himself, will
be remembered and honored with particular warmth and poignancy by
those of us who were fortunate enough to have known him personally."

Jean-Roger Vergnaud had a keen and deep intelligence coupled with a
wonderfully unique and infectious sense of humor; he was an
extraordinary human being who was in addition kind, considerate and

Carlos P. Otero, UCLA
Robert Freidin, Princeton University

Linguistic Field(s): Not Applicable

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