Yehuda N. Falk: In memoriam

Yehuda Falk was one of the most active members of IATL for over two decades until he passed away in July 2012. He was a dear friend and will always be missed and remembered.

Below is the transcript from the special session held in his memory during the IATL 28 conference in October 2012.

Remembering Yehuda Falk (Malka Rappaport Hovav)

Yehuda grew up in Lynbrook, Long Island, for the information of those who couldn’t figure that out from his accent. He often recounted how during his high school years, he learned languages as a hobby and by the time he graduated he already had good knowledge of a fair number of languages and a particular interest in Romance historical linguistics. As a freshman at Brandeis University, he took an introductory linguistics course with Ray Jackendoff, and found one of the loves of his life, linguistics. There at Brandeis, he also found another love of his life, Brandel, who eventually became his wife. He graduated Brandeis with a B.A. in Linguistics in 1980, and went on to do graduate work at MIT, where he learned LFG from Joan Bresnan. He got his Ph.D. from MIT in 1984.

Yehuda moved to Israel in 1984 and has been part of the theoretical linguistics landscape ever since. IATL was established soon after and since 1989 he was in some official position or another at IATL almost uninterruptedly. He served as secretary, treasurer and HU rep, and was the sole website maintainer and editor of the on-line proceedings. At HU he also maintained the department website and thanks to Yehuda, the English department was one of the first departments at the university to have a website, which Yehuda maintained with a lot of creativity and wit. Afterwards, when the generative linguists moved to the Linguistics Department, he maintained the Linguistics Department website. Always eager to contribute with his computer skills, he was also the LFG List Maintainer uninterruptedly since September 1999.

In April Yehuda fell ill, in May he was hospitalized in critical condition at Hadassah Hospital in Ein Karem, and he passed away in July.

Yehuda was a special guy. I think it is fair to say that he liked to take the perspective of an outsider in almost all things. I think this is what drove him to adopt LFG as his working framework. But this was true in almost everything he did. He had a different take on life which he felt comfortable with, and I think he liked reminding the people in his surroundings that there are other perspectives on all things in life.

I first met Yehuda when we were both students at MIT; he was a year behind me. I was a bit in awe of him at the time because when I was struggling to figure out what I wanted to do as a student of linguistics, he already knew, and was excelling at it, being published well before he completed his thesis.

Yehuda was one of Joan Bresnan’s star students at MIT. She wrote in an obituary for Yehuda:

At one time Yehuda remarked that he was the only linguist in Israel working on LFG.  But he was not an isolate so much as a bridge between different linguistic schools. In the entire LFG community and the ILFGA, Yehuda Falk was one of the few who did comparative syntactic theorizing engaging the Chomskyan paradigm, thereby playing a very important role in  theoretical cross-fertilization and communication, one which was invaluable for students particularly, as well as for researchers with broader perspectives in syntax.

Besides Yehuda’s love for his family, he had four other loves: theatre and acting, Star Trek, languages and linguistics, and teaching. Together they were pieces of a mosaic that formed a coherent whole. I think his love for acting merged with his love for teaching. His love for languages was life-long. It, too, is connected to Yehuda’s penchant for different perspectives on life: as we know, each language provides a different perspective on the world. Each year Yehuda participated in the annual LFG conference and when he travelled to a non-English speaking country, he delighted in the opportunity to study a new language, and was always sure to share his delight with us. His love for linguistics was evident and it was important to him to convey this love to his students.

When Yehuda passed away, the students in our department set up a memorial blog. Reading through the posts of the students, one sees how he was admired by his students, how much they loved his special, personal sense of humor, and how passionate he was about his teaching, how infectious his love for linguistics was, how much satisfaction he got when he saw the love for linguistics shared by his students. More than one student recounted how discussions with Yehuda during the Open Day at the university helped persuade him/her to study linguistics. One student recalled how thrilled Yehuda was when a particularly long teaching strike was finally over “It’s great to be back” he greeted the students upon return (I can’t imagine many others of us being caught saying such a thing under these circumstances). Others recalled how he particularly liked the argumentative students and encouraged their argumentativeness. (This of course makes me recall that Yehuda studied phonology with Morris Halle, who is famously quoted as yelling at his students: Argue with me!) One such argumentative student recalled how Yehuda thanked her at the end of the course for her special contribution to the course.

When Yehuda fell ill, we had to pitch in to cover his courses. I taught a few sessions in Yehuda’s phonology class. Let’s recall that Yehuda was a passionate syntactician. He taught phonology because he had to. I used the handouts that he had prepared for the course. They were expertly crafted, and reflected his devotion both to teaching and to the field. Any problem set from a foreign language was accompanied by a map from Ethnologue with information of where the language is spoken and by whom.

We all know that academic life is rife with strife and dis-concord. Goodness knows that we in our department have had our good share of silly academic wars. Yehuda had his opinion on things and held to them, but always took on people with different opinions with deference and respect. I never heard him raise his voice, never heard him say an insulting thing to a fellow colleague or student. And I never saw any indication that he was jealous of anyone.

But, according to his website, he WAS jealous of one person: the linguist who boldly went where no other linguist has gone:

We read on his website about the linguist in the Star Ship Enterprise:

Hoshi Sato, portrayed by actress Linda Park, is a realistically written academic linguist. We first see her (“Broken Bow”) teaching some exotic alien language to students in Brazil. When Captain Jonathan Archer comes to tell his communcations officer that the mission is starting early, she is reluctant to leave her students. But Archer lures her with a tape of a language no human has ever heard before: Klingon. Faced with the opportunity to be the first linguist to describe Klingon, she joins the mission. …At her first opportunity to save the ship by speaking to a potentially hostile ship after she has learned the rudiments of their language, she does what any good academic would do faced with the same situation: she obsesses about her imperfect knowledge of the language. Eventually, of course, she saves the day (“Fight or Flight”). As time goes on, she becomes more comfortable with serving on the Enterprise.

He ends:

Needless to say, I am jealous of Hoshi Sato!

And if I said that Yehuda liked taking a different perspective on things, this may help explain his lifelong love of Star Trek. And here, too, his passion for Star Trek merged with his passion for linguistics.

And I will end these few words with the quote that accompanied many emails from Yehuda as it was part of his email signature:

And because, in all the galaxy, they had found nothing more precious than Mind, they encouraged its dawning everywhere. They became farmers in the fields of stars; they sowed, and sometimes they reaped.
–Arthur C. Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey

Yehuda Falk Eulogy (Ilona Spector Shirtz)

Yehuda Falk was my teacher, my advisor and my friend.

Even more than his courses, which were very interesting and funny, the greatest memory of the time I spent with him was when I was writing my MA thesis in LFG under his supervision. I never had such a big believer in my work; he liked every idea, encouraged to explore new topics, always had the time to meet and talk, immediately responded to e-mails, and was always there for me, and always with a smile and a joke.

The jokes were mostly about dinosaurs, star trek and syntactic elephants. About his computer with life of its own. His daughter Pnina was also a big star.

Once he told me that he is actually very shy. He said that he uses acting (another big hobby of his) to overcome his stage fright when teaching. And indeed, the classroom was his stage. Every performance was unforgettable. He would do anything to excite students about LFG, typology, ergativity, morphology and what not. But mainly LFG. His teaching methods were highly unconventional. He would jump, and stomp, and jokingly frighten the students; Once I went for a minute in the middle of class and when I came back he locked the door. Anything to get our attention. And he got it. It was hard not to. He had this bottle of water, with the word ‘water’ written all over it in many languages. When the material was boring (it was hardly the case, but still, I was a very low attention span student), I would stare at the bottle trying to figure out the languages.

He always had some exotic language he was studying. Of course he was a native speaker of Klingon, but he also learned Tagalog, and Malayalam, and maybe even Dyirbal. I don’t know if he was reading or watching Game of Thrones, but I can certainly imagine him learning Dothraki. Funny thing is, I hardly ever heard him speak Hebrew.

He always made me think outside the box. He certainly set the example, being so unorthodox personally and academically. He was the only person in Israel doing LFG and I admired him for being so courageous and doing something nobody here does. But he made me believe anything is possible, as long as you believe that what you’re doing is right (and involves linguistics or languages, of course). He was an inspiration.

After I ran out of courses to take with him, because I already took all of them, he was very sad and tried to convince me to repeat the courses or just come and sit there. I never did, and now I wish I had. I wish I had more time. I wish he would finish supervising my dissertation, I wish he would continue to encourage and support me when I’m about to give up, I wish we would write a paper on clefts together as we intended and I wish to sit in his office and see him scribble trees on his blackboard while there is a notification of incoming e-mail from the starship Enterprise.

I wish he was with us today…

Yehuda Falk — in memoriam (Nurit Melnik)

Slides (pdf)