Ted Briscoe interviews Gerald Gazdar
Education Teaching Pragmatics Generalized Phrase Structure Grammar
Natural Language Processing Lexical Knowledge Representation Linguistics Conclusion
Left Up Right


EJB The first thing that I noticed, especially after reading some of the other contributions, was that your background in terms of A levels and undergraduate degree was really quite different from the second generation UK linguists who nearly all have a languages background. You did physics, chemistry and maths at A level and then philosophy & economics at UEA so how did you get from that to linguistics?

GG  Well, at that time UEA philosophy was very much ordinary language philosophy so it isn't a huge jump from that to linguistics. I didn't want to continue in philosophy because I didn't think I was good enough at it. It seems to me that to contribute to philosophy you have to be very very good at it. Other disciplines allow you to contribute without you needing to be very very good. Also, I wanted to do something which had a kind of tangible subject matter which philosophy doesn't really. I don't regret doing philosophy as my first degree. I think it was a useful thing to have done but I didn't want to continue with it.

EJB And having a background in sciences at A level is also unusual for a linguist. The jump from such A levels to philosophy is also, I suppose, a nonstandard one. I can see the link to economics via mathematics.

GG  My reasons for that jump were not really academic. My school took us on careers visits where we met old boys. I recall visiting an ICI factory. We were introduced to some old boy and told that he was the best chemist of his year. He was standing in a white coat next to a large vat of something unspeakable and I thought ``no, I am not going to do that''. So I looked for a degree that was maximally useless in terms of a subsequent career. Given that criterion, the choice of philosophy was an obvious one.

EJB Okay. So you had mathematics A level, and you were interested enough in mathematics to include economics in your degree course. Do you think that affected your subsequent approach to research and to linguistics? Do you think that put you in very different place from somebody who had come from modern languages or classics?

GG  I suppose it may have done, yes. I am not really conscious of it.

EJB After UEA, you went to Reading. How did you come to choose Reading? Were there other possibilities?

GG  Yes, I went for an interview at Essex as well. I needed a conversion MA. I couldn't just start doing a PhD in linguistics and both Reading and Essex offered conversion MAs. I can't remember what else was available. I went for interview to both of them, and both offered me places. Reading seemed to me, at the time, to be the better one to do, so that is the one I did.

EJB Was that because it was a bigger department with more people or because of the content of the course?

GG  I don't really remember that.

EJB That presumably would have been a fairly standard route at the time into linguistics because there wouldn't have been too many undergraduate linguistics programmes.

GG  No, I don't think there were.

EJB Right. So how was Reading when you got there? Did it live up to its promise and was linguistics what you had thought it was going to be given that you arrived at it via an ordinary language philosophy route. Presumably you had come across Noam Chomsky's work in philosophy?

GG  Well, I did quite a bit of reading before I got there. I had read John Lyons's Introduction to Theoretical Linguistics (1969) from cover to cover and and I had read his New Horizons in Linguistics (1970) collection from cover to cover as well, so I didn't get any surprises. The Reading MA, at that time, was basically their undergraduate degree compressed into one year so one found oneself in second and third year undergraduate classes. The difference was that the MA students had to work much harder than the undergraduates and every minute of our day was filled. I don't have any regrets - I think it was a good training. It exposed me to all kinds of bits of linguistics which I probably would not have come to terms with if I had had a free choice about what I studied. Parts of it were embarrassing like phonetics: I just couldn't master any of the noises. Never have.

EJB Snap.

GG  In fact, at my phonetics oral exam, the examiners burst out laughing which was not very polite of them but I'm sure it was appropriate.

EJB And was any message conveyed to you about your suitability to be a professional linguist on the basis of this? I remember being reassured myself that not being able to say /oongar/ or something was actually not much of a barrier to being a philosophical linguist by the phonetician here, which was, I think, his attempt to reassure me.

GG  No, I wasn't warned off. The fact that the examiners burst out laughing was indicative of the fact that they didn't think my performance was the end of the world - I'm sure a weaker student would have been treated more tactfully.

EJB Right. In terms of the staff at the time, was there anyone there who was particularly influential? Who directed what was going to happen next?

GG  Well, I suppose, of the staff who were there, Peter Matthews had the biggest impact on me.

EJB And what was it about Peter's lecturing or the content of what he was doing that was ...

GG  Well, he was just a very skilled linguist and very careful and he really led by way of example.

EJB Somebody who really knew the history of the field very well and was careful not to reinvent the wheel and that kind of thing?

GG  I did informant classes with him. We had classes where I guess a couple of us together with the tutor went through stuff with an informant. It was an aspect of linguistics that was not really of interest to me but it was quite enlightening to see how one did it.

EJB Right, and you need somebody to show you that - you don't learn anything of that by reading.

GG  No - and also he taught us what was then contemporary syntax, which I needed to know.

EJB And you stayed at Reading to do a PhD. Was that inertia or a positive decision to stay at Reading because there were things happening there that seemed interesting?

GG  My memory is a bit vague. I think I stayed to do what must have been an MPhil. In other words, a year of research that would allow the MA to become an MPhil. Then I abandoned that project, perhaps because I had realized that MPhils were not worth having, or perhaps because I had gained the confidence to embark on a PhD. So then I switched to doing a PhD. I subsequently wanted to transfer my PhD registration from Reading but the practicalities of that just proved impossible. In the event, Reading didn't supervise me for my PhD. All my supervision came from people outside Reading.

EJB Was that because by the time you had got into the PhD topic there was nobody at Reading who was in a position to supervise that topic?

GG  That's right. Yes.

EJB Essentially, that was pretty much the point at which you moved to Cambridge?

GG  Pretty much yes. I moved physically to Cambridge.

EJB And that was one of the high points of linguistics in Cambridge as Ed Keenan was here and the King's College research was devoted to linguistics at that point.

GG  Yes, it was certainly in that decade the most exciting place in linguistics to be in the UK.

EJB And was it Ed himself who was the attraction in terms of supervision?

GG  Yes, very much so. It was he who had worked on presupposition and I had decided by then that presupposition was my core problem although my thesis wasn't limited to that but it was the nut that I most wanted to crack.

EJB And along the way you had to teach yourself model theoretic semantics which I imagine if there weren't too many people in the UK at the time who were in a position to help with that.

GG  No, I mean almost the first thing that Ed did was drop his favourite logic text book (Thomason 1970) into my lap and say ``go away and work your way through this'' which was extremely good for my soul.

EJB And were there other people around who were under the same influence?

GG  It was just after the big formal semantics conference in April 1973 (Keenan 1975) which Ed had organized in Cambridge and which I had attended. That had opened my eyes to this whole world that I hadn't really been fully conscious of. Everybody who was anybody was there. It was a very exciting event and it was shortly after that that I moved to Cambridge.

EJB So it was really Ed and the introduction to the Montague tradition and its linguistic reinterpretation that was the ...

GG  Yes, but the Montague tradition hadn't really quite emerged in 1973. Montague had published those revolutionary papers but their importance wasn't recognized generally by linguists until after Barbara Partee did her PR job - I don't mean that in a pejorative sense - she did a very effective sales promotion on Montague's work to linguists. Her first paper in that genre (Partee 1973) didn't get published until 1973, for example, and the Thomason collection of Montague's papers only appeared the following year (Montague 1974).

EJB It was absolutely critical at the time as everybody was doing TG. Even if you had the intellectual apparatus to understand Montague's papers, to make the kind of link to the kind of grammar that was being done was still a fairly large intellectual effort. That was, in some sense, what Partee and Thomason did. But you and presumably Ed were doing that independently ...seeing that the stuff was relevant and was perfectly integratible with syntax.

GG  I wasn't thinking about syntax very much at that time.

EJB But I assume Peter Matthews was teaching the current version of transformational grammar.

GG  Yes. But I didn't think about syntax until I had to teach it. I didn't think hard about it until I found myself teaching it to undergraduates. It was then that whatever faith I had in transformational grammar leaked away rather rapidly. In 1973, that was before that.

EJB But it was clear that if you wanted to work on problems in pragmatics that the starting point was model theoretic semantics.

GG  Well, there wasn't any semantics in TG.

EJB Absolutely. That again is, I would have thought, a fairly innovative position to adopt. There must have been other people around who were doing pragmatics but I would have thought that none of them, certainly in the UK, were doing it in the context of model theoretic semantics.

GG  Well, pragmatics, I don't think really had a name at that stage: the notion that you could cut the field of meaning into semantics and pragmatics in the way that it was subsequently cut. I think that was still emerging.

EJB But within five years, it was really a quite clearly identifiable assumption.

GG  By the late 1970s, yes. So pragmatics had become a legitimate subdiscipline in linguistics by the late 1970s but it wasn't in the early 1970s. And, apart from lexical semantics, semantics wasn't really a component of linguistics in the early 1970s, either.

EJB And so to what extent was your PhD influential in creating that kind of division and that kind of view of what pragmatics was?

GG  Well, there were a whole bunch of works at around that time of which my PhD was one so I suppose they were jointly responsible.

EJB And the rest were in the US?

GG  I suppose they would mostly be, though Kempson 's (1975) and Wilson 's (1975) theses were influential. Subsequently Steve Levinson 's textbook (1983) defined the field if you like - but that was several years later. Geoff Leech published a textbook on pragmatics in that year also (1983).

EJB Was Steve around in Cambridge at that time?

GG  Oh, yes. I'm not sure exactly when he came back to Cambridge but he and I started a journal called Pragmatics Microfiche. I think we may have started that in 1974 so that would have been one of the beginnings of pragmatics, I suppose. I'm sure it wasn't a very influential journal, but it was probably a marker of the word pragmatics coming into general currency.

EJB Right. And what was the point you started to make contact with people like Geoff Pullum and Ewan Klein ?

GG  Ewan did the MA at Reading the year after me. We became friends and he was instrumental in getting me to move to Cambridge. He started a PhD in Cambridge after he finished the Reading MA and we shared a flat in Cherry Hinton. Geoff Pullum was also there in Cambridge because he was registered initially to do a Cambridge PhD - though he subsequently switched registration to London when he moved there to take a teaching job at UCL. So all three of us were in Cambridge in 1973 and we all attended the weekly Universal Grammar seminar in King's College that Ed ran with Bernard Comrie . And Richard Coates , who subsequently became a colleague of mine at Sussex, he was also there part of that time. With hindsight, that seminar was quite remarkable because most of a doctoral generation of British linguists attended it: in addition to those I just mentioned, Jack Hawkins , John Payne , Andrew Radford and Nigel Vincent were regulars.

EJB And Ewan and Geoff were registered to do PhDs in Linguistics?

GG  Ewan certainly wasn't. He was registered in Social & Political Sciences. Geoff was a research student in Linguistics attached to King's College at that time.

EJB It is striking reading the earlier generation's stories how Cambridge was a nexus for nearly all of them. A lot of them did modern languages or classics at Cambridge but, in their day, there was no Linguistics Department. In 1973, there was a Linguistics Department?

GG  Yes. John Trim was its Head. He was extremely hospitable to me. I had no formal status in Cambridge at all but he just treated me as if I was one of the graduate students in his department, with all the same sorts of privileges.

EJB And, to some extent, he must have been influential in getting Ed to come over and in making possible the big conference that happened there?

GG  That, I don't know.

EJB And you were in Cambridge, doing teaching and tutorial work?

GG  I did a bit of tutorial work.

EJB But that was really just an excuse to be near Ed?

GG  I was just living in Cambridge in order to be supervised by Ed and that lasted for a year and then Ed went back to the States. I continued living in Cambridge as I had somewhere to live and there was no good reason to live anywhere else.

EJB Which is an informal arrangement about how one does a PhD - to the point of neglect perhaps would be the one view. The other view would be that it was an extremely flexible set-up very different from the kind of thing that you would be able do in the US ...

GG  Or even here now. I don't suppose Reading allows PhD students to disappear off into the sunset these days.

EJB I think everywhere has some sort of residence requirements on fulltime PhD students now. So, yes, the system has become less flexible. But, in your case, it seems that you were able to capitalize on that. The fact that Ed Keenen was around for a year was obviously an opportunity.

GG  Reading weren't in a position to offer supervision on what I wanted to do and as I insisted on doing what I wanted to do and wouldn't hear of any alternatives they were relaxed about my emigration.

EJB Which is another big institutional difference between universities in the US and here. When I was at Penn I was astounded at the degree to which people were essentially told that if you want money then you do this. I think there still is a presumption in the UK that you have a lot of independence, perhaps more that you'll ever have again, when you do your PhD. It seems unlikely that you would have ended up writing a PhD on that particular topic if the system had been much tighter.

GG  Also, in those days, things were not so carefully costed. Ed was a freestanding research fellow and how he used his time was up to him so perhaps that would not have changed. But, in the case of Hans Kamp , when I transferred to him he was a full time teaching faculty member at another university and he just took me on. There was nothing in it for him, it was not part of his official teaching load and it is hard to see that happening these days. Maybe it was hard to see it happening in those days too and it is just that that those issues weren't visible to me.

EJB Your transfer to Hans was through Ed presumably. Hans knew Ed and ...

GG  My memory of the story as it was passed to me, I think by Ed, was that he bumped into Hans at a conference and said ``I've got this guy in Cambridge whom I'm supervising and I'm going back to the US and he can't follow me and can I offload him on you?'' and Hans said ``yes''.

EJB And Hans was at that time at Essex?

GG  No, he was at Bedford College in London, In Regent's Park. I just commuted down every fortnight or so to see him.

EJB There must have been someone at Reading who was the official supervisor?

GG  I was put down in Frank Palmer's name as he was Head of Department and I had to be listed under somebody's name.

EJB Did you go to the States before you finished your PhD?

GG  No.

EJB But your PhD research was really being driven by American work?

GG  Yes, very much so. Lauri Karttunen is a Finn, of course, but he was then working in the US.

EJB In that sense, a number of the earlier people like Peter Matthews and John Lyons also have a sense of themselves as being people who imported Chomskyan linguistics, or maybe generative linguistics, or whatever. I don't have much sense of to what extent, by the time you were doing your PhD, more or less everybody was looking to the US, and how much there was still an independent separate kind of tradition being pushed in British linguistics departments.

GG  It depended what you were working on. If you were interested in anything to do with syntax and above in the traditional layer cake model then you didn't have much choice about the nationality of the people you cited because the US was where all the exciting work was being done.

EJB And even before you finished you got a lectureship at Sussex.

GG  I had pretty much finished. I hadn't written up but the components were all done. I pretty much had a set of chapters and the implicature and presupposition stuff had all been distributed in June 1975. I had distributed three chapters privately. I had printed up about fifty copies and sent them to people like Karttunen, Stalnaker and Thomason. Really, it was just a tidying up task once I got to Sussex in October 1975.

I can remember being asked in the interview what I knew of AI. I think the reason I got the job was because the answer was that I knew rather a lot. I had read Charniak 's thesis (1972). I had read Wilks 's book (1972) and Winograd 's book (1972). I had read the Rustin volume (1973). I had actually read a great deal of AI and natural language work for own my interest and because it connected with topics in my thesis. So, that from the interview panel's point of view, I was probably ideal because there weren't many UK linguists round in 1975 who really knew anything much about AI.

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Copyright © Ted Briscoe & Gerald Gazdar, Wednesday 2 May 2001