Lauri Karttunen

My old friend (for about 55 years now) and wonderful colleague Lauri Karttunen died two days ago (in the morning of 3/20). The briefest summary from the Stanford linguistics chair, Chris Potts, that morning:

Lauri was a towering figure in linguistics and NLP. Numerous observations, concepts, and hypotheses that we all take for granted in these fields trace to his foundational work. The breadth and depth of these contributions is really remarkable: discourse referents, presupposition plugs / holes / filters, implicative verbs, finite state morphology, Finnish morphophonology, natural language inference, and on and on. In all these areas and more, he helped to set the research agenda.

And of course we all know Lauri as a vibrant presence in Linguistics, in the NLP Group, and at CSLI [Stanford’s  Center for the Study of Language and Information]. He shaped the work of generations of Stanford scholars — including turning a number of them into Finnish scholars via his legendary Structure of Finnish courses with Arto [Anttila] and Paul [Kiparsky]!

I’m no longer able to write death notices afresh — for people whose work (of whatever kind) I’ve admired, mentors, colleagues, former students, friends, lovers, whose deaths now pile up in such numbers that I can no longer do them honor, as I once tried to do.

Today, though, I will manage some Musings On Life: on being of some age (only 4 months younger than me, Lauri was for practical purposes the same age as me); and on intimate personal and professional relationships (Lauri having had both with Annie Zaenen, his wife and frequent collaborator, who survives him).

Being of an age. Among my colleagues at Stanford, one — Elizabeth Closs Traugott — is a bit older than I am (by a year and a half); three (Herb Clark, Paul Kiparsky, and Lauri) are within a few months of me (as are Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Ringo Starr, to give you a feel for the time-depth); two (Stanley Peters and Annie Zaenen) are a bit younger (a year to a year and a half), and two (Eve Clark and Penny Eckert) are just a bit younger than that (around two years — along with Paul McCartney). So: a pretty clear age cohort, with birth dates clustered around 1940.

We’re all in the chasm between the Greatest Generation and the Boomers, with early childhoods during World War II and later childhoods in the postwar period (childhoods experienced in various countries), then teenage years in the 50s and young adulthood in the 60s (I went to grad school at MIT with Paul and Stanley). We had became professionally acquainted by the 70s, and by the late 80s we were all associated with Stanford.

Relationships. Eve and Herb are married to one another and are professional collaborators as well. Same for Annie and Lauri. Paul and Lauri have taught together (see Chris Potts above), as have Elizabeth and I. There’s a string of other academic associations connecting us (Elizabeth, Penny, and I together on a project with John Rickford and Tom Wasow, for example) — this is a collaborative place, and people sit in on each other’s classes and hear each other give papers, all the time.

The thing about close friendships and close professional collaborations is that you change each other; you’re in a regular dialogue, in which you exchange opinions, knowledge, and enthusiasms. The closer the relationship, the more profound the changes. In long-term, very close relationships, eventually you can’t imagine what you would have been like without the other person in your life.

Even more: in such relationships, you develop a kind of division of labor, in which each partner plays to their special strengths and abilities, rather than each trying to do everything; as a unit, the two of you together become much more competent, much more knowledgable, much more versatile than either of you would be on your own.

Both these effects — absorbing stuff from your partner and being changed by it, allotting stuff between you to expand and multiply your individual capabilities — can be unbelievably satisfying.

But when one partner dies, the second effect vanishes, and the survivor suffers a grievous loss: on top of being deprived of your partner’s physical presence and the pleasures of their company, you suddenly become ignorant and incompetent — because you’re no longer much good at the things in your partner’s province. If the two of you were both social and professional partners, then you get hit in both realms at once. And that’s just fucking awful. (I’ve been through it twice and watched others go through it.)

With this in mind, a photo of Annie and Lauri, giving a paper together in 2013, Annie looking engaged but amused, Lauri pensive:

(photo from this site)

So: we will mourn Lauri, a presence taken from us too soon and too quickly. Now look to the living.


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