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IN MEMORIAM

CARL L. BAKER

C.L. Baker, or Lee Baker as he was known to colleagues and friends, was always an important presence. He contributed immeasurably to the Linguistics Department, to the University of Texas, and to the profession of linguistics. His untimely death in early 1997 saddened us all.

Lee Baker received a BA in mathematics at Harvard College in 1961, and a Ph.D in linguistics in 1968 at the University of Illinois. He joined the Department of Linguistics at the University of Texas in 1968 as a National Science Foundation Faculty Associate. He became an Assistant Professor in 1970, an Associate Professor in 1972, and full Professor in 1980.

Baker served as Chair of the Department for two terms, 1985-1989 and 1989-1993. He was appointed Harold C. and Alice T. Nowlin Regents Professor in Liberal Arts in 1989. In the Department of Linguistics and the University as a whole, Baker was active in many ways: he was deeply concerned with issues affecting the well-being and intellectual environment of students and faculty.

Syntactic theory and the syntax of English were Baker's main research areas, and he left a lasting mark in both. His first two articles, on questions and negation, present important ideas and data which are still of interest. For instance, there are references to his early analysis of questions in a syntax text published in 1997. The English auxiliary verb system fascinated Baker throughout his career, and he wrote a number of articles about it. In this body of work Baker combines a scrupulous respect for data with theoretical rigor and explanatory power. Never doctrinaire, Baker also used his analytical skills and deep knowledge of the syntax of English to critique developments in transformational theory. He argued forcefully against the rather short-lived theory of global rules, and pointed out some serious limitations to the popular approach known as 'core grammar.

One of Baker's greatest research strengths was his ability to recognize significant problems. His 1979 article on syntactic theory and the projection problem is a prime example. In this article Baker defined a question for theory and empirical research. Learners of a first language must somehow project their knowledge of how particular forms behave, and thereby arrive at syntactic generalizations; yet they must avoid over-generalization. Until Baker's article the problem had been discussed only at a very abstract level, in terms of classes of grammars. Baker showed precisely how the problem arises for a grammar of English - and by extension to that of any other language. If learners only used positive evidence they would never make generalizations. Yet if they made generalizations on the basis of examples, errors would be predicted that do not occur. Baker advocated a conservative approach to the problem: he assumed that learners generalize more narrowly than was previously thought. This article has been extraordinarily influential. For instance, Baker's approach is discussed extensively by the psycholinguist Steven Pinker, and clearly affected Pinker's way of thinking about the problem. Pinker has sought relatively narrow, semantically-based generalizations, to explain the limited generalizations made by learners.

Baker's interest in language acquisition continued. He conceived and co-organized a conference on learnability theory, together with John McCarthy. They also co-edited a volume of papers and commentaries from this conference.

Baker wrote two textbooks on English syntax, each a classic of its kind. In both books Baker developed a consistent, detailed set of syntactic rules for English; this is an achievement that few have even attempted. In the first text, published in 1978, Baker gave a technical presentation of the transformational theory of the period. It is probably the most complete available, and is still useful for showing the strengths and weaknesses of that theory. Baker's second text is a precise, non-technical account of the subject. It is written in Baker's own voice, with depth and clarity. The book begins with a wonderful, deceptively simple, discussion of some of the basic ideas that underlie generative grammar. By the end the student has a grasp of the basic structures of the language, many extraordinarily intricate details of noun phrases and comparatives, and has encountered some topics of semantic interpretations such as quantifier scope and the functions of the definite article. This book does a superb job of teaching basic techniques of syntactic analysis as well as the structures themselves. The book, published by MIT Press in 1989, has been very successful. An enlarged and revised edition was published in 1995.

Baker's last article was published in 1995 in one of the most important journals of linguistics. Here Baker combined a long-standing interest in anaphora with a new awareness of the importance of linguistic context. He proposes that a notion of discourse prominence is a necessary supplement to the standard Binding Theory approach. The article presents evidence for his theory from a careful corpus search. Baker is at the forefront of linguistic research in this, his last published article.

Baker participated actively in several important journals. He was a founding member of the Associate Editorial Board of Linguistic Inquiry, from 1971 on. He served as Squibs and Discussion Editor, 1973-75. Baker was a member of the Editorial Board of Linguistic Analysis. He became an Associate of the inter-disciplinary journal Brain and Behavioral Sciences in 1983, and was Associate Editor of Language from 1985 to 1987.

Baker was a scholar of the highest caliber. He had a strong intellect, probing, tough, and curious; and we all felt and responded to his strength and dry humor. He cared about his colleagues. He commented carefully on papers, and advised on research and career matters with a characteristic mixture of warmth and pragmatism. He was a man of principle, with strong convictions. He raised questions - sometimes awkward ones - and pursued them. He was willing to expend prodigious energy to see that things went as he thought they should.

Teaching was very important to Lee Baker. He was interested in communicating his ideas and in helping students develop their own. He gave generously of his time to students. He was always open to new problems and analyses, suspicious of flashy solutions. A long-time member of the Fellowship Committee, he was concerned that all students be fairly treated.

Lee Baker made a real difference to the life of the Department of Linguistics and to the University of Texas.


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Larry R. Faulkner, President
The University of Texas at Austin


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John R. Durbin, Secretary
The General Faculty


This memorial resolution was prepared by a Special Committee consisting of Professors Carlota S. Smith (Chair), Robert D. King, and Stephen M. Wechsler.