With sadness we have learned that Dick Oehrle has passed away on February 21, after a two-year illness.
Richard T. Oehrle (or Dick, as he was known to all) attended Harvard College, Columbia University, and finally MIT, where he obtained his PhD in 1976 for a thesis “The Grammatical Status of the English Dative Alternation” supervised by Morris Halle. Dick spent most of his academic career as a Professor of Linguistics at the University of Arizona in Tuscon. Before that, he held positions at Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania, and a visiting fellowship at Groningen University. Eventually Dick followed his wife Susan Steele to the Bay Area, where he worked as a computational linguist.
Dick’s research spanned an unusually wide variety of linguistic areas: phonology, prosody, syntax and semantics. But perhaps he will be remembered most for his work on categorial grammar and related formalisms. His pioneering work in the eighties and nineties greatly contributed to the renewal of interest in categorial type logics. The 1985 Tucson conference he co-organized, and the volume based on it (“Categorial Grammars and Natural Language Structures”, Reidel, 1988), were landmarks in this respect. His proposal of adding a prosodic dimension to categorial types (“Term labelled categorial type systems”, L&P 17, 1994) has proved to be a source of inspiration for many researchers up to the present day. His entry on Categorial Grammar in the Oxford International Encyclopedia of Linguistics testifies to the recognition for his work in this area.
On a broader plane, Dick was one of the driving forces in creating the thriving ‘Logic and Language’ scene we see today. He organized a number of the Logic and Linguistics meetings of the Association for Symbolic Logic/Linguistic Society of America, and contributed courses and workshops to LSA Summer Institutes. In addition, he served as President of the Association for the Mathematics of Language (MoL) and was a co-founder of the Formal Grammar conference series. The ESSLLI Summer Schools, with their hearty mix of themes from logic, language and computation, Dick considered as his natural intellectual habitat. From the early days on (Leuven, 1990), he was a regular visitor at ESSLLI, as a lecturer and workshop contributor.
Dick was a highly-esteemed researcher in many areas of linguistics and a much loved member of our community. He will be remembered as an original thinker with a very kind side, an inspiration to everyone he knew. His memory will live on in the hearts of many. He leaves behind his wife Susan, two children and three grandchildren. We share in their grief.
On behalf of the FoLLI board,
Michael Moortgat and Larry Moss
Brief personal reactions from colleagues:
Johan van Benthem:
Dick Oehrle was a well-informed, broad-minded and invariably supportive colleague who helped make the categorial grammar community a pleasant home for many. Dick provided a crucial publishing platform for my papers on the logic of type-shifting grammars, and he was one of those welcoming congenial faces that made my early visits to America so natural and productive. Every conversation with him was fresh and worthwhile. I am sure that many others have had the same experiences, and feel the same sense of loss now that Dick has passed away.
Dick is one of those people who will never die. His ideas will stay with us and so his energy and enthusiasm. In all our meetings Dick has given me energy and hope. I have always admired his mixture of excellence and simplicity, his ability to find something positive in all circumstance, his attitude to enjoy life andscience. I have memories of him in Utrecht, Rome, Pescara, Boston, and in all these places I see him smiling with sparkling eyes full of joy. This is how I think of him: as a person who had light inside for him and for whoever had the luck to meet him.
I cannot imagine my scholarly life without ESSLLI, and I cannot imagine ESSLLI without Dick Oehrle. If one should ever have had any doubts about doing logic, linguistics or computation, one should just have run into Dick Oehrle. And if one should ever have had not any doubts about it, one should just have run into Dick Oehrle. Dick was the type of man that knows where he is, what he is doing there, and knows why he is doing it, at least sufficiently. His contributions to the fields are broad and lasting, and even more was his personal presence: overwhelming, but modest and in T-shirt. For those who thought who knew him: Dick has co-authored a publication in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, on how to establish communication with extra-terrestrial alien civilizations, using the language of SCIENCE and MATHEMATICS. It is in the mathematics of language that indeed we will most remember him, but I am very grateful that I may actually remember him in person.
Philippe de Groote:
I knew that Dick Oehrle was seriously ill, but when I learned that he passed away I remained voiceless. Then, the first words that came to my mind were: “Dick, une si belle personne, un si bel esprit!” (Dick, such a nice person, such a beautiful mind). I do not think there is anything to add. Everything is said.
Dick Oehrle – a fine person, the finest. And a good friend, the best. Considerate, generous, adaptable, helpful, smart as hell. We’ll miss you Dick – your concern, your solidity, your unselfishness. We’ll miss you at conferences and summer schools. We’ll miss you in Arizona, in Holland, in California. We had a lot of laughs once at one of the ESSLI’s – we both smoked for a week and then quit cold turkey at the end of the last lecture. We now stand a little less tall without you.
When I got to know Dick, I was in my twenties. His views on logic, math and language were new to me then, and enchanting. From a mentor he became a friend. He was a person of great learning and culture, always worn lightly. Provided there was dark chocolate around (Callebaut!), and espresso coffee, a conversation with Dick could move effortlessly from linguistics to a fine point in a Haydn sonata (promptly illustrated at the piano) or the uncanny resemblance between a revealing Velasquez portrait and someone we both knew. His sense of adventure never left him, and went well beyond the academic: for his 70th birthday, he jumped out of a plane, skydiving with his son. Above all, he was extremely kind and generous. I will miss him dearly.
I knew Dick for 25 years; he was a gentle man and philosophically ahead of his time. He was instrumental in the renaissance of categorial grammar and remained at the forefront of the field to the end of his life. In my foolish youth there was something that puzzled me. He always seemed more concerned to cultivate good relations with others than to insist on the superiority of his scientific point of view. His scientific point of view was superior, but he knew better what really mattered. An innovator, he was a Gentleman and a Scholar of the Old School.
In the 1990’s Dick Oehrle was a generous participant and leader in the Mathematics of Language research community. My personal connections to Dick stem from that era. I think of Dick with admiration and gratitude. He was a linguist’s linguist and was encouraging to all. He’ll be missed by many.
I admired Dick for many things. He could find an abstract pattern in a set of linguistic data bewildering to others and he could turn that abstract pattern into formal machinery, for others to understand. His deep insight led to the multidimensional approach to categorial grammar and linguistic theory. He was the most patient, kind, and scholarly of editors. He was fun to talk to over a glass of Guiness, and I now regret that, because of the distance, we did not have more occasions to meet in person. Dick was a wonderful guy who will be sorely missed.
Valeria de Paiva:
My personal experience of Dick Oehrle was very limited. I interviewed for a job with him at Cataphora, which I didn’t get, in 2012. But still his kindness and willingness to engage in serious debate even in the setting of a job interview in Silicon Valley made a very positive impression on me. Of course I knew about his work from a long way back and in many ways that is his most lasting influence. His book “Categorial Grammars and Natural Language Structures ” helped to show a lot of us that categorial grammars could be seen as logic and that logicians could and should be engaging more with linguists of several stripes, a lesson I did take to heart.
Dick was one of the clearest, most versatile, and most helpful colleagues that I have known. His ideas on English syntax just as on Lambek Grammar were enlightening, creative, precisely to the point, and delivered with great flair. I am lucky to have learned from his work and to have interacted with him.
I have spent my entire adult life around amazingly smart people, and I can think of few people I have met who could match Dick for insight and creativity. But he had a frustrating way of communicating those insights in cryptic ways. During the years when we were colleagues with adjacent offices (in the mid-1970s), I remember on several occasions discussing with him some linguistic issue I was puzzling over, and coming away from the discussion feeling more confused than when I started. But then, a few days later, I would have an insight about the issue we had been talking about, and I could trace that insight back to something Dick had said that had baffled me at the time. I think I did my best work as a generative grammarian during the years his office was next to mine.
In 1997, Michael Moortgat introduced me to type-logical grammar during a partial sabbatical spent with him in Utrecht. Soon after, I learned about Dick, and started to read his papers and book. I have immediately realised how inspiring his writings were, and started to correspond with him on various issues related to TLG. He always answered, always informatively and in a helpful way. Later, I met him several times in ESSLLI, and got to like him personally very much. Our longest meeting was in Montpellier in 2004, in a categorial grammar conference. There, I had the opportunity to conduct longer conversations, both on scientific and personal matters. We kept corresponding, until I switched topics and moved to proof-theoretical semantics, after which our contact loosened, and I did not know about his illness. I will remember him as an inspiring and cheerful person.
See also these announcements:
- Mark Liberman’s post on LanguageLog
- Stanford Dept of Linguistics Sesquipedalian entry