Emmon Bach 1929-2014

We lost our dear friend and colleague Emmon Bach on November 28th, 2014. The announcement from our departmental website is reproduced here, the WHISC announcement is here, Barbara Partee’s language log announcement is here, and a memorial page set up by Jim Blevins, connecting to pages about the June 2014 Emmonfest in Frankfurt, can be found here. This is the main memorial page for Emmon. You are welcome to share your thoughts as comments on this page (don’t worry if your comment doesn’t appear right away – it may need to be approved).

Other announcements and obituary notices:  LAGB Forum, LSA News, University of Oxford, University of Texas. Also SSILA, the Society for the Study of Indigenous Languages of the Americas, of which Emmon was president when he died, has an obituary notice here, and then a post showing the flowers they sent to the funeral and the tribute Pat Shaw wrote to go accompany the flowers. Those who were at the funeral saw them and appreciated them greatly, as well as the flowers from the UMass Linguistics Department and a number of other floral tributes.

Another place where tributes, reminiscences, and photos are appearing is Emmon’s Facebook site.

The funeral was held December 13th in Oxford. Memorial donations may be made at any time to Doctors Without Borders or to Amnesty International.

From Barbara’s language log post: “Emmon will be sadly missed and fondly remembered by generations of family, friends, colleagues and students. His passing leaves a big hole, but he left us more than a hole-ful of riches to be grateful for.”

20 thoughts on “Emmon Bach 1929-2014

  1. Bob King

    Emmon and I shared an office for three years when I first went to Texas, which is one of the best things that ever happened to me linguistically or otherwise. Under Emmon’s tutelage, with lots of help from Bob Harms and Stan Peters, I got up to speed on all the then new stuff coming out of MIT. I doubt I would have without Emmon’s enthusiasm.
    But it was for his other qualities and talents that I remember him so fondly–we fished together, read Edward Sapir’s poetry together, played squash together, picnicked together, mainly though just talked in the course of the day. I learned a lot. Modest, smart, above all wise and patient, he was the model of a caring academic.

  2. Joe Pater

    I have fond memories of Emmon from when I got to know him around 2000 when I started at UMass. I stayed in his lovely house on Pelham road one summer when he was away, and particularly remember the lush garden and the piano and other instruments. I was very happy to see him recently at the Boulder LSA Summer Institute, and to have the opportunity to tell him how much I liked Bach and Harms 1972 (yes, Emmon was a phonologist too!), and that Elliott Moreton and I were citing it as the first work in what we were calling “Structurally biased phonology”.

  3. Edward L. Keenan

    Emmon Bach — a fine scholar, a fine person. The sort of colleague I want to listen to at conferences, and the sort I want to meet with and discuss with afterwards. Emmon sought understanding, he was never trendy. A healthy field needs people of Emmon’s caliber. We have been fortunate to have had him among us. His, albeit inevitable, loss is our loss. Ed Keenan

  4. Peggy Speas

    For me Emmon was a model of how to be as a linguist – interested in such a range of ideas, having so much brilliance yet never pushing his own agenda on anyone. Looking for truth as he saw it, and inspiring others to find their own truth.

  5. Elisabet Engdahl

    I was fortunate enough to have Emmon as a teacher in many classes, including the field methods course on Thai, taught with one of the incoming class as informant. But I wonder if I didn’t learn more about linguistics methods just from studying how he went about his research. I remember Emmon one day looking at a note on the table, looking puzzled. Is anything wrong? I asked. “Yes, no, I don’t know. Why can’t you passivize this?” Emmon was in the middle of thinking about passives and had the habit of turning every sentence he came across into a passive, checking if it worked. The results are in his article In defense of Passive (1980, L&P 3).

  6. Tom Roeper

    Emmon was the first person I met the day I walked into the department—and, though I’d read his book, I didn’t know
    him personally. I came to treasure his humor, his ability to be both light-hearted and passionate, and his easy
    acceptance of so many dimensions of linguistics. One remark, though, stood out over 30 years. Discussing students and how to best help them he said “I just think all students should be encouraged”. It has come to mind a million times.

  7. Donald C. Freeman

    I first met Emmon at a conference in Austin when we were just starting the recruitment of faculty to start the UMass Amherst department of linguistics. I tried hard to get him, but couldn’t — we were at too early a stage in our development — ; in the early 70s, Jay Keyser and Barbara Partee brought Emmon on board.

    He was exactly the combination of superb scholar and inspiring teacher that has marked the department’s faculty appointments from that day to this. Emmon was always willing to entertain new ideas, and always ready to help reshape them where they went astray. He was a gentle and kind man. I will miss him profoundly.

  8. Natalia Philippova

    Unfortunately, I never had the honor of being Emmon Bach’s student, but I have one little anecdote to share: I once tried to explain exactly what it is I do to my parents (who are both economists), and they lost all interest once they heard “lambdas”. Then it occurred to me to read them a few pages from “Informal Lectures on Formal Semantics”. They listened quietly and then said: “well, NOW it all makes sense”!

  9. Paul de Lacy

    I really liked Emmon – a great guy. He also has the distinction of being one of the very few linguists to be mentioned in a novel: see “Snow Crash”, by Neal Stephenson (which is one of Time magazine’s “100 all-time best English-language novels”).

  10. Seth Cable

    As an undergraduate, Emmon’s work on ‘natural language metaphysics’ deeply touched and inspired me. Until that point, I had thought that semantics was focused only on the *rules* for composing meanings, an enterprise that I could see the value in, though not the excitement. Through Emmon’s writings, though, it finally became clear to me that – while the rules are indeed important – it is really *the meanings themselves* that have the most to show us, that by developing a model structure for natural language, we are actually developing a theory of how language (and thus the human mind) actually organizes the world. It’s not an exaggeration to say that those papers changed my life forever.

    Consequently, I was both thrilled and terrified when Emmon arrived on campus during my first semester teaching at UMass. Of course, his friendly and supportive manner immediately put my anxieties to rest. I’ll always cherish those times when I got to hear his stories of both the field and fieldwork in the early days. On the few occasions that I got to see him again over the following years, it was always a delight to be in his friendly and supportive presence.

    He will be very deeply missed, even by those of us who only had the privilege to know him briefly. And, his work will go on inspiring students for generations to come.

  11. Lyn Frazier

    Emmon was a wonderful mentor, colleague and friend. Whether it was in his linguistics, his poetry or as head of the department, Emmon always had his own take on things. I remember during one particularly bad fiscal crisis when Emmon threatened he would sell the department to the People’s Republic of China, where they respect linguists. I wasn’t entrely sure he was joking.

  12. Samuel Jay Keyser

    Just a year after I became head of the Department of Linguistics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst in 1972, Emmon Bach joined the faculty. I thought of him as one of the pillars on which the department was built. In my view he had one of the subtlest minds of our generation. I’m sorry that he is gone.

  13. Hans Kamp

    On the 5-th of December I gave a talk (at a workshop in Tübingen on ‘World Knowledge and Linguistic Knowledge’) about Emmon’s distinction between (‘Real’) Metaphysics and Natural Language metaphysics. I was then cut off from e-mail until the tenth, and when I was reconnected again I learned that Emmon was no more. The talk in Tübingen was part of an ongoing effort I have been trying to make over the past few years to come to grips with the distinction between Real and Natural Language metaphysics and to understand better what Emmon has had to say about it. So the shock of learning about his death was somewhat like learning that someone has disappeared for good whom only very recently you had been trying to listen to in a kind of way, and also had been been trying to talk to – to ask, in tacit conversation, what some things from his papers meant or whether you had been right in taking certain things this rather than that way.
    Emmon’s ideas about Natural Language Ontology and his closely related work on Aspect are only one part of the many contributions he has made; and when you count numbers of pages, it may even look like a comparatively small one. But for me his thoughts on the role and place of ontology in the study of language are only gradually revealing their true depth and importance, more than three decades after he first had them.
    Emmon’s engaging personality, his openness and fairness, his humor will from now on be things that we can only keep alive in our thoughts of him. But his place within natural language semantics and within linguistics more generally, is independent of any such fond memories; and it will still be there when even those of us lucky enough to have such memories will have followed him.

  14. Barbara Partee

    This comes from Ana Maria T. Ibaños, Faculdade de Letras
    The Pontifical Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul (PUCRS), Porto Alegre, Brazil.

    Prof. Bach’s book Informal lectures in Formal semantics was my key to the study of Semantics. Two years ago, I had the opportunity of having him at PUCRS for a Seminar as well as my guest at home for a dinner party.
    He was a very sweet and nice person. He will be missed.

  15. Henk Verkuyl

    I liked Emmon very much and I considered him a friend, even though I didn’t see him in the past years when he lived in England. But we continued to mail each other now and then and in that contact he was really wonderful in his tone: tactful, sensitive and humorous. While discussing the news about Emmon’s passing away, Gina and I couldn’t stay away from our memories about the time we spent in Amherst in 1986, nice memories connected with Emmon and Barbara including trips to concerts in nice little places. Those sweet memories added to those when Emmon was a guest in our house in Amsterdam always have accompanied me and they will remain dear the rest of my life.

    Going through the excellent obituary on internet, it is evident that it did justice to him: Emmon could really look back with pride on what he had achieved in linguistics. He was one of the heroes at the end of the sixties/early seventies here in the Netherlands for those who got into generative grammar. And later he became a beacon in the domain of formal semantics. He was too modest himself to show off his well-deserved feathers. The very nice picture on the boat at the top of the In Memoriam shows him as I like to remember him. Apart from that, the big trail behind him may be seen as marking his important contribution to linguistics.

  16. Bill Marsh

    About a week after I moved to Port Angeles, WA in September 1992, I tried to call Emmon in Amherst and was told he was at a conference in Victoria. I immediately called his hotel to tell him that if he could look to the south he might see me waving to him across the Strait of Juan de Fuca.  We arranged for him to visit, and he asked if we could also visit the Makah Museum in Neah Bay, since Makah was related to the Haisla language he had worked on for many years up in Kitamet, BC.  I quickly learned that Ann Renker, the Museum Director, had done a dissertation on Makah, so I called her.  What follows is my recollection of that call, perhaps distorted by my having told this story too many times.

    As I rambled on about my being new to Clallam County and about Emmon’s wanting to visit, my memory is that she interrupted me to ask me what I had said my friend’s name was.  I answered and remember a moment of stone cold silence before she said “THE Emmon Bach?”  She went on to say how much his work had meant to her.

    She gave Emmon and me a pretty good tour of the Museum.

    When I told her my version of the story recently, she said “I so fondly remember Emmon’s smile when I told him that I slept with”Nouns and Noun Phrases” under my pillow as I wrote my dissertation.”

    My being able to claim that I had worked with Emmon, albeit in mathematics, led to my being accepted by the people here and in Texas working to save the Klallam language as someone at least interested in what they were trying to do. When I congratulated Tim Montler on his recent completion of a Klallam dictionary, he told me that at a recent meeting Emmon had reminded him that I was a friend of his here in Port Angeles.

    Emmon was kind, generous, and a very good friend.

  17. Susan Fischer

    (Barbara asked me to cross-list this) So sorry to hear of Emmon’s death. He was smart, funny, self-effacing, and sweet. Ken Hale once referred to him as the Willie Nelson of linguistics. He was one of the first authors in generative grammar that I read. My heart goes out to Wynn and the children.

  18. Craige Roberts

    Emmon’s “The algebra of events” and his “Natural language metaphysics” are little jewels that still deserve to be on any syllabus where they’re relevant. Like all his work, they’re clear, accessible, and free of transient assumptions about framework, reflecting deep insight. I think this was a reflection of Emmon’s attitudes toward his work and linguistics: It was not about Emmon or his personal commitments, always about language. This permitted him to sustain his work long after it was driven by career. I was very fortunate to have such a teacher.

  19. Barbara H Partee

    The LSA has recently established a new charitable contribution fund in memory of Emmon Bach (June 12, 1929 – November 28, 2014). The announcement, and a link for making donations (online or by mail) is here: http://www.linguisticsociety.org/content/emmon-bach-fund .
    The fund was established in consultation with Emmon’s families and close colleagues, including many in this department, and is to be used to support student fellowships at CoLang, the Institute for Collaborative Language Research. This will be the first named fellowship at CoLang; the founding donors are sure that Emmon would be pleased and honored to be helping to support the CoLang institutes, which offer an opportunity for practicing linguists, undergraduate and graduate students, and indigenous language community members to develop and refine skills and approaches to language documentation and revitalization.
    The LSA’s goal is to raise enough funds to support an endowed Bach Fellowship award at each future CoLang Institute. An endowment relies on the earnings rather than the principal to generate the financial award. In order to support a biennial fellowship that covers tuition, room and board, plus travel support, the LSA will need to raise a minimum of $50,000. Pre-announcement fundraising has raised $21,900, almost 44% of our goal, from a combination of individual donors and a contribution from the CoLang fund balance left over after CoLang 2014, sent by Colleen Fitzgerald at UT Arlington.

    The fundraising drive will continue indefinitely until sufficient funds are raised, but the LSA hopes to reach the goal in time to make the first award at CoLang 2016 at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

    Thanks to all those friends and colleagues who have already gotten the fund started, and thanks in advance to everyone who would like to contribute to it this year to meet the initial goal, and in future years to keep it going.

  20. James Cathey

    I just happened on this page, so my comments come much later than others. I knew Emmon from the 1970s as a friend. His field and mine (historical Germanic) did not especially overlap, but we hit it off and became good friends. After he moved to England, we occasionally saw each other there and kept up contact with each other. When he occasionally came from England, he often stayed with me and my wife. I do profoundly miss him.


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