April 15, 1999
Vol. 18 No. 14

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    [james mccawley]
    James McCawley

    Distinguished linguist James McCawley dies at 61

    University linguist James McCawley, a founder of generative semantics and one of the world’s leading linguists, died Saturday, April 10, in Hyde Park of an apparent heart attack. He was 61.

    “He will be remembered as one of the greatest linguists of the last third of the century,” said Salikoko Mufwene, Chairman of Linguistics and a student of McCawley in the 1970s.

    Originally a student of Noam Chomsky, McCawley, the Andrew MacLeish Distinguished Service Professor in Linguistics and East Asian Languages & Civilizations, was one of four scholars who developed the field of linguistics called generative semantics. Generative semantics is the study of how structures of sentences are in part determined by the meaning that is conveyed. “His work was trying to highlight the complex processes—semantics, pragmatics, morphology—involved in producing or interpreting sentences,” Mufwene said.

    The New York Times columnist William Safire, who frequently consulted McCawley, described the professor as “one of the great living grammarians” and “the only man in linguistics whose reputation challenges Noam Chomsky’s.”

    McCawley’s research interests were broad and included such topics as syntax, semantics, pragmatics, lexicography, the history of linguistics, the philosophy of science and writing systems, plus Japanese and Chinese language.

    He was an important figure in the development of the study of syntax and generative semantics that made semantics a central component of linguistic theory, Mufwene said.

    John Goldsmith, a fellow pupil of Chomsky and the Edward Carson Waller Distinguished Service Professor in Linguistics at Chicago, said, “One of Jim’s great gifts was his ability to cut to the core of an issue and to get to its essence, almost always with an astonishing metaphor or image.

    “His reviews of Chomsky’s books were legendary examples of even-mannered evaluation, showing humor at the same time as real intellectual engagement with the issues.”

    Describing the nature of McCawley and Chomsky’s academic discourse, Goldsmith said, “Jim thought that syntax and semantics were inextricably intertwined, while Chomsky believes that the two are autonomous.”

    Victor Friedman, linguist and Chairman of Slavic Languages & Literatures, said, “He was both a brilliant theoretician and a master of many languages. He had a command of a vast array of languages.”

    According to Goldsmith, McCawley spoke at least 12 languages, including Japanese, Chinese, Hungarian, Yiddish and Russian. “He loved languages and linguistics; he had an open mind and a creative one,” Goldsmith said.

    His passions also included music and cooking. “He was himself a gourmet cook,” Mufwene said. “He was an accomplished musician—a man of impressive memory.”

    In 1991, McCawley received an honorary doctorate from the University of Goteborg, Sweden. In 1996, he served as president of the Linguistic Society of America. At the time of his death, he was a member of the Committee of Scholars at the Agorist Institute, a member of the editorial board of Journal of East Asian Linguistics and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

    A prolific writer, McCawley wrote numerous books, including Thirty Million Theories of Grammar (1982), The Syntactic Phenomena of English (1988) and Everything that Linguists Have Always Wanted to Know about Logic (but Were Ashamed to Ask) (1981). The public best knew McCawley as the author of The Eater’s Guide to Chinese Characters (1984), a challenging book for learning those aspects of the Chinese language that are needed to read menus written in Chinese.

    “He was a strong believer in individual rights and freedoms,” Goldsmith said. As a young man, he fought against segregation in the South. In 1976, 1978 and 1980, he ran as a Libertarian Party candidate for trustee of the University of Illinois.

    Except for pursuing a Ph.D. in linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, McCawley spent much of his career at Chicago. He received his bachelor of science in mathematics from the University in 1958, and he joined the University faculty in 1964 as an Assistant Professor.

    Born in Glasgow, Scotland, March 30, 1938, McCawley is survived by his sisters, Monica Cox and Caroline Podvin; nephews, Jerry Cox Jr. and David Cox; nieces, Monica Martz, Michelle Smith, Kimberly Cox and Connie Anast; and loving former spouse, Noriko Akatsuka.

    A visitation will be held from 3 to 9 p.m. Wednesday, April 14, at the Lain Funeral Home, 50 Westwood Dr. in Park Forest, Ill. For more information, call (708) 747-3700. A memorial service will take place from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. Thursday, April 15, in Bond Chapel at 1025 E. 58th St.