My maternal cousin, Ivan Andrew Sag, passed away on Tuesday, September 10, 2013 (1949-2013)

ivan A. Sag (PhD, MIT 1976) was the Sadie Dernham Patek Professor in Humanities and Professor of Linguistics and Symbolic Systems at Stanford University. He was also a Senior Researcher at Stanford’s Center for the Study of Language and Information (CSLI) and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Linguistic Society of America.

Ivan was one of the originators/developers of Generalised Phrase Structure Grammar (GPSG), Head-Driven Phrase Structure Grammar (HPSG), and Sign-Based Construction Grammar (SBCG). He worked on numerous syntactic problems and also made contributions in semantics, experimental and computational linguistics, phonology, and the study of discourse. Focusing on issues at the morphology/syntax and syntax/semantics interfaces, his recent research primarily concerned constraint-based, lexicalist models of grammar, specifically construction grammars, and their relation to theories of language processing.

Born [11/9/49] and raised in Alliance, Ohio, Ivan attended The Mercersburg Academy in Mercersburg, PA before he was unceremoniously expelled (story here). He began his linguistic career studying Indo-European and Sanskrit at the University of Rochester (BA – 1971) and the University of Pennsylvania (MA – 1973). His interest in grammatical theory led him to study at MIT; his 1976 PhD dissertation (advised by Noam Chomsky) was on ellipsis. Ivan was Assistant Professor at the University of Pennsylvania (1976 – 1979) before joining the faculty at Stanford in 1979, broadening his interests to include model-theoretic semantics, discourse, and language processing.

Ivan received many honors and fellowships; he was especially proud of the Linguistic Society of America’s Victoria Fromkin Prize in 2005, for distinguished contributions to the field of linguistics, and of the Edward Sapir Professorship at the LSA’s Linguistic Institute at UC Boulder in 2011.

Ivan was the founder of Dead Tongues, the unofficial rock and roll band of the Stanford Linguistics Department (which played at the April IvanFest).

Ivan is survived by his wife, our linguistics colleague Penny Eckert.


Armida Nagy Stickney


Thanks Ivan for having introduced me to HPSG at the ’91 ESSLLI summer school and for being an inspiring thesis supervisor. I have always enjoyed our discussions about linguistics and life….

Congrats and Thank you!

Congratulations to the 40th anniversary of Ivan’s spectacular professional life! Congratulations also to the colleagues that organized the wonderful tribute event!

My connection to NLP and Computational Lingusitics started with the project BulTreeBank, where my and my colleagues’ linguistic Bible became HPSG’94 book of Pollard and Sag. (By the way, it still is.)

I would like to thank Ivan for being one of the most prominent driving forces in Linguistics.

I would like to thank him and Dan Flickinger for supporting my 5-month Fulbright stay at Stanford University.

Hm, one idea that I am wondering about is whether Ivan would like to start writing also political books in addition to the linguistic ones (similarly to another prominent guy in Linguistics).


I can’t remember more sustained linguistic fun than reading drafts of the HPSG book over a couple of years. Thank you for letting me be part of that!


I am sad I didn’t know about this Fest until today… there are no words, really, to express my admiration for Ivan, person and linguist. I just wish I could have spent more time with him when I was at Stanford, or more time since I left. There is still time, and I still feel incredibly fortunate to have met him (and played with him!).

Bruno Estigarribia

Relative linguistic and social acculturation

One of the practical things I learned from Ivan during an ESSLI conference in Prague in 1996 was a simple but accurate measure of relative linguistic and social acculturation. According to the Sag Diagnostic, a traveller’s degree of acculturation is inversely proportional to the rate at which they accumulate coins (particularly those high in mass and low in value).

Jim Blevins

Words from Inbal

Words for Ivan

First of all, I want to say how much I wish I were attending the Ivan Fest in person. Not only to show my great love and admiration for Ivan, but also because the program – like Ivan’s intellectual work – is a collection of inspiring and thought-provoking papers, all trying to answer big questions: what is language? How is it represented? How can we simultaneously accommodate its productive and restricted aspects? Like Ivan – the program manages to bring together researchers from different theoretical perspectives to engage in a lively and spirited debate. I wish I were there – to hear the papers; to learn and argue; to partake in the special environment that Ivan has always managed to create around him.

I first met Ivan when I started my PhD at Stanford in 2004. My favorite class that first semester was a seminar on island constraints taught by Ivan, and attended by a small group of graduate students, who were to become my friends and collaborators for years to come (Bruno, Neal, Florian, Philip). In that class, we read the syntactic and psycholinguistic literature on island constructions and developed a shared interest in seeing how much of the ungrammaticality of these constructions can be explained by processing factors. Without much experience, we embarked on a multi-year project asking how processing factors impact the perceived ungrammaticality of Superiority violations. It was my first empirical study of syntax; my first collaborative project; my first stab at connecting the often- disparate psycholinguistic and syntactic literatures. The work led to a conference presentation at John Hopkins later that year – and I fondly remember us meeting in Ivan’s hotel room after the talks were over, heatedly discussing what we learned while drinking Whiskey. I was so taken with the way Ivan treated us – the genuine respect for what we had to say, the genuine curiosity about what we had learned from the talks, the care he took to introduce us to everyone.

Since then, Ivan has played an important role in my growth as a linguist and scholar. His taste for big questions, his endless curiosity about language, his appetite for life and for solving linguistic mysteries, have all served as an example for how exciting and lively intellectual life can be. From the start, Ivan has not only been an exceptional mentor, but also a great friend. Our conversations easily move from the latest article, to politics, to what it means to be Jewish, to which Indian dish is the most delicious. I would turn to him with equal ease for solving a linguistic puzzle and tending to a broken heart. Now that I have students of my own – I know even better how admirable that is.

Dearest Ivan – I feel blessed and privileged to have been once your student, and now your collaborator and friend.

With much love



Sometimes it’s just hard to choose

Well, I’m on a plane flying back to Austin after attending the first two days of IvanFest — I missed the third day only because I have to rush back to UT on three hours of sleep to roll straight off the plane and into the classroom in time to teach a group of weary undergraduates the basics of compositional semantics. I do not see this going well. But instead of prepping my notes I’m still reminiscing, thinking back on my 13 years and counting of knowing Ivan Sag and trying to hone in on my favorite Ivan story to share in honor of his 40 years in the field.

Is it the time Ivan called me in April 2000 to lay on the heavy recruitment to come to Stanford for my PhD? I think the key moment in that conversation came when we realized how much we had in common musically — Ivan’s pitch changed instantly from telling me I’d be crazy to do computational linguistics anywhere else to simply, “Come to Stanford — we’ll jam”. That part came true — very true — though I also switched to syntax and never looked back. For what it’s worth, though, I didn’t need the recruitment. I knew I wanted to go to Stanford to study with Ivan ever since I first cracked open Sag and Wasow (1999) as an undergraduate and realized that that was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

Or maybe flash forward several years later, after Ivan and I had been running in circles — and into ditches — for months trying to come up with analysis of non-constituent coordination in HPSG without CCG-type functional composition. At the end of yet another frustrating, empty-handed meeting, Ivan suddenly bolted upright in his chair and said, “Wait, wait, I’ve got it!” You could almost literally see the light bulb above his head and the fire in his eyes, and the ideas started to pour out fast and furious, so much so that I couldn’t keep up. “Don’t worry,” he assured me, “Let me take a whack at the abstract.” Hours later we had it, and the paper — now a more general treatise on coordination with non-constituent coordination as a special case —- practically wrote itself.

Or is it about sitting together in Ivan’s living room late at night watching old bootleg videos of Howlin’ Wolf backstage at some gig slagging off Sonny Boy Williamson to his face, calling him a sad old drunk who don’t love nothing but the whisky, before launching into a fiery rendition of Spoonful? Or about one of our now countless Dead Tongues gigs, including the epic barnstormer we just had literally two days ago? Or the time Ivan called me at 11:00pm on a Tuesday to tell me all about the new Telecaster he’d just bought? Or the time we stole that shopping cart from the Whole Foods in Cambridge, MA, a little act of civil disobedience to protest their stupid grocery loading elevator system? (NB: If you’re a cop and you’re reading this, the statute of limitations has way passed on this one. I checked.)

No, I think my favorite story is simply about a regular working day in Margaret Jacks Hall sometime in Winter 2005, I think on a Wednesday, around 9:00pm or so. I was in my office downstairs and Ivan in his upstairs, both of us staying late to frantically get our respective abstracts for HPSG 2005 together (not that it mattered — we’d both missed the deadline by a day). Ivan had been feeling a little unsure of his paper and I a little unsure of mine, so we did an abstract swap to get each others’ feedback. Some comments got emailed in both directions, and eventually he came down to my office that night to hash through both sets of the ideas orally — this makes sense but I don’t buy this, can you clarify that, you can’t say that without better empirical evidence, you need to streamline the argument here and here, and yes, I see your point, but WHY would this be the case? Another round of revisions, another quick mutual sanity check, and we were done.

Times like that — and there were many — taught me more than any textbook or organized course. Although Ivan was still the professor and I the student, it all melted away, and we were just two working syntacticians sharing ideas, listening to each other, and pushing each other towards better insights, sharper precision, and greater clarity of thought. I learned a lot from Ivan about what it means to be a practicing academic, what it means to be a colleague and to have colleagues, and just how rewarding and fulfilling this crazy life we’ve all chosen for ourselves can be, especially when it means working in a community with people as brilliant and caring as Ivan A. Sag.

Congratulations on 40 years of fighting the good fight, and thanks, Ivan, for all the wonderful memories, and for more to come!


Cheers to Ivan!

I read the HPSG book when I was 20. I was utterly enchanted by it. “Ivan Sag” was a big name in shining lights then, and Stanford was a supremely cool and magical faraway place.

Fast forward: Ivan Sag turns out to be an extremely nice guy with a Hammond organ and a bunch of band equipment LITERALLY in his GARAGE, and that’s where we meet for band practice. Ivan introduces me to Linda Ronstadt, and I kind of learn how to improvise and be in a rock and roll band.

Then Ivan Sag generously agrees to supervise my dissertation, and supports me happily and open-mindedly through my twists and bends as I finally start to find myself. Makes a profound and lasting difference on my life. Also teaches me to horizontally align asterisks properly and avoid having too much whitespace after periods in LaTeX.

And now I’m halfway across the world discovering new things and missing being able to bounce ideas off of Ivan. I really really wish I could have come to the IvanFest. (I had tickets booked but then was forced to cancel despite great sadness about it.) But I virtually raise my glass in honor of Ivan, hero of my linguistic youth, band-mate, advisor, friend, and inspiration!

Egészségedre!  (whole-ness-poss.2sg-to; `to your health’ backwards)