Obituary: Petr Sgall (1926-2019)

Professor Emeritus Petr Sgall, professor of Indo-European, Czech studies, and general linguistics at Charles University in Prague, and an Honorary Member of the LSA since 2002, passed away on May 28, 2019 in Prague, the day after his 93rd birthday.

Over a lifetime of distinguished work in theoretical, mathematical and computational linguistics, he did more than any other single person to keep the Prague School linguistic tradition alive and dynamically flourishing. He was the founder of mathematical and computational linguistics in the Czech Republic, and the principal developer of the Praguian theory of Functional Generative Description as a framework for the formal description of language, which has been applied primarily to Czech, but also to English and in typological studies of a range of languages.

Petr Sgall was born in in České Budějovice in southern
Bohemia, but
spent most of his
childhood in the small
town Ústí nad Orlicí in
eastern Bohemia and
lived in Prague from the time of his
university studies.

He studied typology under Rudolf Skalička, with a PhD dissertation on the
development of
inflection in Indo-
European languages. His habilitation thesis in 1958 was based on his postdoctoral study in Cracow on the infinitive in Old Indian; it earned him a position as docent (associate professor) of general and Indoeuropean linguistics at Charles University.

At the beginning of the 1960s, Sgall was one of the first European scholars who became familiar with the newly emerging Chomskyan generative grammar. He immediately understood the importance of an explicit description of language, but at the same time, he was concerned that the early generative approach lacked a full appreciation of the functions of language (see his analysis of Prague School functionalism in his paper in the renewed series Prague Linguistic Circle Papers, the Travaux linguistiques de Prague Vol. I (1964)). Based on the Praguian tenets, Sgall formulated and developed an original framework of generative description of language, the so-called Functional Generative Description (FGD). His papers in the early sixties and his book presenting FGD (Sgall 1967) (http://ufal.mff.cuni.cz/~sgall/doc/sgall-bibl.pdf) were the foundation stones of an original school of theoretical and computational linguistics that has been alive and flourishing in Prague since then. Sgall’s innovative approach builds on three main pillars: (i) dependency syntax, (ii) information structure as an integral part of the underlying linguistic structure, and (iii) attention to the distinction between linguistic meaning and cognitive content.

The linguistics group that was established under his leadership in 1959 flourished in an interdisciplinary environment that included both the Philosophical Faculty of Charles University and the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics until political difficulties under the Communist regime led to his removal from his post as head of the Laboratory of Algebraic Linguistics, and nearly led to his expulsion from the University and the dissolution of the linguistics group. The Laboratory was disbanded, but courageous colleagues in the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics enabled the transfer of the staff of the Laboratory to that Faculty, where it thrived and became the Institute of Formal and Applied Linguistics (UFAL). Throughout the difficult years from 1972 until the fall of Communism in 1989 (with gradual improvements starting in the early 1980s), Sgall helped the group maintain ties with many international colleagues and continue to develop their productive work in formal and functional linguistics and pioneering computational applications. (The author remembers from visits in 1981, 1985, and a semester in 1989 how weekly seminars were held at 5pm so that talented young colleagues who were barred from university participation could attend after finishing their work days in factories and technical institutes.)

In the post-Communist era starting in 1990, the group was able to maintain UFAL, finally with permission to teach and to have their own graduate students, and they were also able to establish the Institute of Theoretical and Computational Linguistics back in the Philosophical Faculty. They could then regularize their ties with many colleagues and programs abroad, including a cooperative computational linguistics program with Johns Hopkins University and a collaboration between the Prague Dependency Treebank and the Penn Treebank.

Also in the post-Communist era after 1989, Professor Sgall was able to travel freely, hold guest professorships at foreign universities and a fellowship semester at NIAS, and to receive some of the public recognition he long deserved. He was elected a member of Academia Europea, awarded an Alexander von Humboldt Research Prize, and received Honorary Doctorates from the Institut National des Langues Orientales in Paris and from Hamburg University. He was named an Honorary Member of the Linguistic Society of America in 2002.

Petr Sgall will be remembered with admiration, respect, and gratitude by generations of students and colleagues for his untiring and successful personal and intellectual leadership of the development of Prague School linguistics, helping it to maintain a valued place in the contemporary international linguistics world, and for his own major contributions to typological studies and to theoretical and mathematical linguistics.

An obituary written by his Prague colleagues, from which the photograph above and some parts of this text were taken, can be found at http://ufal.mff.cuni.cz/obituary-petr-sgall .

 

-Barbara Partee

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