May 25, 2007

Sad news: Carlota Smith

Carlota Smith, a linguist at UT Austin well-known for her 40 years of work on syntax, semantics, acquisition, and discourse structure, died yesterday. An obituary from Richard Meier, chair of the UT linguistics department, follows, then some final recollections of my own.


Professor Carlota S. Smith of the Department of Linguistics at The University of Texas at Austin died Thursday, May 24 at the age of 73 after a long battle with cancer.  She was the Dallas TACA Centennial Professor in the Humanities and taught at The University of Texas at Austin for 38 years.

Carlota Smith received her bachelor's degree from Radcliffe College in 1955.  In the late 1950s, she became a research assistant and then a doctoral student in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania.  During this time she worked with Zellig Harris, who directed the doctoral dissertation of Noam Chomsky and who would also later direct her own doctoral dissertation.  In 1961, Prof. Smith was a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, MA, where she was one of the very first woman students to work with Chomsky. Prof. Smith's first publication (`A Class of Complex Modifiers in English', 1961) dates from this period.  It appeared in the journal Language.

After receiving her M.A. (1964) and Ph.D. (1967) at the University of Pennsylvania, Prof. Smith joined the faculty of The University of Texas at Austin in 1969, where she was a faculty member in the Department of Linguistics until her death.  She served as the chair of the department from 1981-1985.  In 1991, she was named the Dallas TACA Centennial Professor in the Humanities.

Prof. Smith's early research examined the syntax of English.  In 1969, she published, along with Elizabeth Shipley and Lila Gleitman, a very influential paper on how children acquire English as a first language; in ensuing years she would publish several more papers on child language development.  Starting in the mid-1970s, she embarked on what was perhaps her most important line of research.  In many papers and in a very important book (The Parameter of Aspect, published in 1991 by Kluwer), she analyzed the ways in which languages encode time and how they encode the way events happen over time. Prof. Smith's work on temporal aspect has been notable because of its empirical foundation in her careful analyses of a number of quite different languages, including English, French, Russian, Mandarin, and Navajo.  Through her many years of research on Navajo,  she became a member of the Navajo Language Academy, a group that seeks to further the study of Navajo, to keep Navajo from becoming endangered, and to provide training in linguistic research to members of the Navajo Nation.

In 2003, Cambridge University Press published Prof. Smith's second book, Modes of Discourse.  This book analyzes the grammatical properties that distinguish different genres of discourse (e.g., narratives vs. reports vs. descriptions).  In this book and in earlier papers (for example, a 1985 paper on the French author Gustave Flaubert), she sought to bring the analytic tools of linguistics to the humanistic study of literature.

Carlota Smith was an active member of the Department of Linguistics until the very last.  This semester she taught a graduate seminar on time in language.  She was meeting with students and faculty in her office just three days before her death.  Throughout the semester she was thinking about how to ensure the future of the department in which she had taught for virtually her entire career. At The University of Texas at Austin, her absence will be felt for many years to come.
Prof. Smith is survived by her husband, John Robertson, who is a professor in UT's Law School.  She is also survived by her children Alison and Joel, and by her grandchildren Sylvia and Ari.
A memorial service will be held on Saturday, June 2 at 4:00 at the Alumni Center on the UT Austin campus.

 - Richard Meier, Professor and Chair, Department of Linguistics, UT Austin. May 25, 2007.


I came to know Carlota well only in her last year, through which she was constantly living under the pressure of chemotherapy and the likelihood of imminent death. But she never flagged in her commitment to her students and colleagues, to the department, to the school, and to her research. As Richard makes clear, she was active to the end. She was still eager to learn, sitting in on at least one class as well as teaching her own. Even in the last few months she was still advising and teaching, she co-chaired a search committee, and she organized a workshop on Linguistics and Literature (and presented a paper there).

A couple of weeks ago, she had successfully roped me in to teaching a course in UTs Cognitive Science program, of which she was director, and on Monday we had an appointment. She came along to my office. I was  shocked at the plainly visible deterioration in her health, but she went straight to business. No, she'd just had a coffee, so let's not go out for one. Let's make plans for the Cognitive Science program, and what did I think about this and that, and so on. We cut the meeting a little short - she was tiring rapidly, though she sent me a brief follow-up email that evening so that I wouldn't be discouraged.

Carlota achieved more than most of us can ever hope to, but she still had much she wanted to do. She put every breath she had towards doing it.

Posted by David Beaver at May 25, 2007 11:30 PM