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In Memoriam: Jean-Roger Vergnaud, 65

A linguistics professor in USC College, Vergnaud made major contributions to syntax and phonology. “His work was inspired by a penetrating vision of what the study of language should strive to become,” said Noam Chomsky, Vergnaud's adviser at MIT.

By Pamela J. Johnson
February 3, 2011

Linguist Jean-Roger Vergnaud, a pioneer in syntax and phonology, taught in USC College until May 2010. Photo credit Antonio Nava.

Linguist Jean-Roger Vergnaud, a pioneer in syntax and phonology, taught in USC College until May 2010. Photo credit Antonio Nava.

Jean-Roger Vergnaud, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Humanities, professor of linguistics and a major contributor to generative grammar, has died. He was 65.

The USC College professor died at USC University Hospital surrounded by his family on Jan. 31, after being diagnosed with chronic myelomonocytic leukemia in spring 2009. He taught until May 2010 and saw his son Sebastian, 24, graduate from USC College with a master’s degree in mathematical finances.

“He was an incredible father,” said Vergnaud’s wife of 28 years Maria Luisa Zubizarreta, professor of linguistics in the College. “Jean‑Roger was unique, truly unique. His thoughts were deep and creative. He was very much interested in the mathematical formalization of grammar. I will see him in every corner at USC, where we worked side by side for 23 years.”

Arriving from Paris as a recent graduate of the esteemed École Polytechnique, Vergnaud earned his Ph.D. in linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where the father of generative linguistics Noam Chomsky was his thesis adviser.

“Jean-Roger was a superbly talented linguist, with numerous major contributions to his credit,” Chomsky said. “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.”

Vergnaud received his doctorate in 1974 with a seminal thesis on the structure of relative clauses, then took posts at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and the University of Maryland before arriving at USC in 1988.

In 1987, he co-authored An Essay on Stress (MIT Press), with the founder of generative phonology Morris Halle. The book presents a universal theory for the characterization of stress patterns of words and phrases in languages around the world.

“This volume aimed at nothing less than a comprehensive theory of the possible stress patterns in human languages, through the construction of novel but sharply restricted formalisms,” said James Higginbotham, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and Linguistics and Linda MacDonald Hilf Chair in Philosophy in the College.

An Essay on Stress helps to explain how native speakers acquire as small children the complex principles that are governing the speech around them,” Higginbotham said. “Besides the book, Jean‑Roger wrote many articles, and his ideas, always put in abstract terms but with a close feeling for the empirical data, were among the most significant in the development of linguistic theory.”

Vergnaud’s close friend since 1983, Higginbotham recounted how their acquaintance sparked.

“I had written a short, partly mathematical and partly empirical, piece that jumped into the then‑current debate on whether the syntax of natural languages could in principle be characterized as ‘context‑free’ in a technical sense,” Higginbotham recalled. “I remember giving the draft to Jean‑Roger in the morning, then later stepping out of my office into the corridor of the old wooden barracks that was Building 20 at MIT, to see Jean‑Roger emerge, smiling, at the other end. I was satisfied then that my argument was sound.”

Halle said Vergnaud’s work in the scientific study of language will be remembered for its high quality and extraordinary breadth.

“He was one of a handful of linguists who made major contributions to the two main domains of the field: syntax and phonology,” said Halle, Institute Professor and professor emeritus of linguistics at MIT. “In syntax he introduced the study of abstract case, which made possible investigations in areas that were previously closed. In phonology, he provided a new formalism for the study of stress and prosodic phenomena of various kinds. He was also a wonderful human being and friend.”

Joseph Aoun, now president of Northeastern University in Boston, is credited with revolutionizing the Department of Linguistics while he was a linguistics professor and dean of the College. Aoun called Vergnaud a giant in the field of linguistics and a great innovator.

“I met Jean-Roger when I was a student in Paris and worked with him while I was at MIT,” Aoun said, adding that he was part of the team that recruited Vergnaud and Zubizarreta to USC. “His theories, insights and contributions have had an enormous impact on the field and on scores of linguists. I have lost a mentor and a friend, and miss him terribly.”

Jean-Roger Vergnaud was born in Valence, France, Aug. 3, 1945. His father was a school director and mother, a teacher. Active in the French resistance during World War II, Vergnaud’s parents protected the children in their school, as well as documents pertaining to the resistance, Zubizarreta said. Vergnaud’s sister Colette Vergnaud Grazzini was an oceanographer and paleontologist at the Centre National de Recherche Scientifique in France. She died in 1995 at 58 from glioblastoma multiforme.

During his final 10 years of research, Vergnaud sought to formalize grammar in terms of graph theory. He presented some of his ideas in the last graduate class he co-taught in Fall 2009 with Louis Goldstein, professor of linguistics. Vergnaud’s thinking spanned from syntax to phonology and from phonology to syntax, Zubizarreta said.

“He is rare in that he was interested in both fields and contributed in fundamental ways to both,” Zubizarreta said. “He had a great influence on other people's thinking and was tremendously generous to colleagues and students. And he had a unique sense of humor, up to the very end of his life. He is irreplaceable.”

On May 6 and 7, a symposium that had been in the works prior to Vergnaud’s illness will be held at USC in honor of Vergnaud’s work. Called Parallel Domains: Locality in Syntax and Phonology and the Representation of Constituency, scheduled speakers are Chomsky, Halle, Goldstein, Joost Kremers and Dominique Sportiche. Presentations will be followed by discussion and questions. A complete program will be announced late March.

Katy McKinney-Bock, a fourth-year graduate student of theoretical syntax in the College who is organizing the workshop, talked about Vergnaud, her academic adviser.

“Every time we met, I would talk about my ideas, and he would ask me questions as if I had all the answers. Of course I didn't,” McKinney-Bock recalled. “Only after the meeting would I reflect on what he had said to me, and realize just how much I had been learning, how much he had been teaching me the entire time. He had a magical way of making us equals, and at the same time teaching me to be a better linguist and person. He gave me tools that I will carry with me throughout my life.”

A memorial is being planned for the morning of May 8 at USC.

In addition to Zubizarreta and Sebastian, Vergnaud is survived by son Rafael, 15, and nephew Jacopo Grazzini Vergnaud, 34.