Saturday, April 15, 2017

Obituary: Jeffrey S. Gruber

This is the obituary I wrote for Jeff Gruber, originally posted to the LinguistList April 9, 2014.

Jeffrey Steven Gruber passed away at the age of 73 on March 16, 2014 at the Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston.

Jeff was an important figure in the field of linguistics. His doctoral thesis gave rise to the study of thematic relations in generative grammar, and he continued to publish papers in this area until the very end of his career. His work on the language ǂHoã of Botswana was one of the first systematic descriptions of a Khoisan language, including accurate phonetic transcriptions of the complicated system of consonants and vowels.

Jeff was born October 20, 1940 in Stamford, Connecticut to the late David and Adele (Chase) Gruber. He attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, receiving an S.B. in Life Sciences in 1962 and a Ph.D. in Linguistics in 1965. He was a member of the second class to enter the MIT linguistics program, and a member of the first group to receive Ph.D.s from the department in 1965. The title of his dissertation, which was supervised by Edward Klima, was Studies in Lexical Relations (an e-version can be found here:, and the full list of influential dissertations from that class can be found here: His thesis and later developments were published in 1976 as a book, Lexical Structures in Syntax and Semantics (North Holland).

Jeff’s thesis includes extensive discussions of goals, locations, sources, themes and agents, as well as many insightful observations on the syntax and semantics of prepositions. Jeff introduced and explored the notion of theme for the first time, which is now standard in the linguistics literature on thematic relations. A theme was defined as “…the entity which is in motion… As seen the theme may be in motion in a concrete or in an abstract sense, manifesting a change of position, possession, class membership, activity, etc.” (pg. 50). Crucially, source and goal were also defined across these various dimensions (pg. 101). In this way, his thesis set the stage for all further discussions of thematic relations (theta-roles), argument structure and the lexicon in generative grammar (on the influence of Gruber 1965 on Jackendoff’s work, see Jackendoff 2014).

The theory of thematic relations in Gruber 1965 is built on the idea of prelexical structure. The prelexical structures are generated by phrase structure rules (pgs. 123, 125, 282). One of these phrase structure rules introduces the theme, another one introduces the agent. So notions like theme, goal, source, agent are syntactic, associated with particular positions in a phrase structure tree. Lexical items are mapped onto prelexical structures, and “interrelate and overlap in their uses according to various elements in the prelexical structure” (pg. 264). A core concept of the thesis was incorporation: “This will refer to the replacement of elements in the prelexical string by the phonological form of lexical items” (pg. 13). For example, the sentence “John climbed the ladder” can only mean that John climbed up the ladder, not down the ladder (pg. 20). This fact led Jeff to conclude that when “up” is implicit, it has been incorporated. Jeff adduced large numbers of examples where incorporation played an important role in understanding the syntax and semantics of lexical items.

Immediately after graduate school Jeff became a research fellow at MIT working on a project in child language acquisition (directed by M. Bullova) from 1965 to 1967. He published five articles on child language acquisition including Gruber 1966, 1967b/1971, 1966/1973d, 1975f, 1975g. He also spent a short period of time as a consultant at the Systems Development Corporation (Santa Monica, California) on a “project relating to the structure of the lexicon and the use of the computer as a research tool for linguistics.”

During graduate school, in 1964, Jeff embraced the Bahá’í Faith ( And so, in January 1968, Jeff left for Botswana in order to help with the development of the Bahá’í Faith in that country. In Botswana, Jeff learned to speak Setswana and assisted native speakers in translating Bahá’í writings into Setswana. After a brief stay in Lobatse, he obtained a position at the Kgari Sechele Secondary School in Molepolole and taught English, math and science from 1968 to 1970. While teaching chemistry, he lost an eye when it was punctured by broken glass tubing.

After teaching at the secondary school, Jeff started a research project to study the Khoisan languages with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The project title was Bushman Languages of the Kalahari. The project description (on file with the NEH) was: “The Bushmen, a unique and vanishing people, are speakers of the so-called ''click languages,'' studies of which, though crucial if knowledge of them is not to be lost forever, have been limited in the past to comparative and classificatory sketches of little depth. To study, formulate and record phonological, syntactic and semantic aspects of the language. To accomplish in-depth scientific retrieval of this rapidly disappearing and extraordinary linguistic material.” This research lasted from 1971 to 1975. The research on ǂHoã was carried out in consultation with Titi, Jeff’s wonderful ǂHoã consultant. It is Titi who is recorded speaking the “recorded utterances” (Gruber 1975b). Titi also served as one of the two main consultants for Collins 2001, 2002, 2003. He passed away in 2011.

In addition to two published papers (Gruber 1973a, 1975a), Jeff’s work on ǂHoã includes a list of “recorded utterances” over 100 pages long (all recorded on reel-to-reel tape, now digitized), a vocabulary and extensive grammatical and lexical notes. Jeff’s work on Khoisan was crucial in the establishment of the Kx’a language family, which includes ǂHoã as well as the northern Khoisan languages (Heine and Honken 2010). Jeff’s work has been useful to others who have since worked on ǂHoã and the Khoisan languages.

In 1976, Jeff started a position as Senior Lecturer at the University of Ife (now renamed Obafemi Awolowo University). In 1986, he moved to the University of Benin where he stayed until 1991. At these universities he taught syntax, semantics and language acquisition. He directed at least 15 theses during his time in Nigeria (14 B.A. theses, and one Ph.D. thesis). He held appointments as Professor and Head of Department at both universities. His students in Nigeria remember him as a patient and dedicated teacher and mentor. Ore Yusuf (retired, University of Ilorin) recalled that “Jeff would work with students anywhere, car park, open fields with papers flying around and students chasing them.”

During his time in Nigeria, Jeff directed a number of theses on thematic relations and serial verb constructions. These theses influenced the next step in the development of his theoretical ideas, which he sometimes called “configurational theta-theory” (see Gruber 1992: fn. 2, Gruber 2002: fn. 3, which note the importance of Ogwueleka’s thesis). In this theory, an elemental thematic function consists of a set of theta-roles (e.g., theme-source-goal), in a particular dimension (e.g., positional, possessional, contact, informational). This much was already present in Gruber 1965. The innovation is that these elemental functions may be combined into a complex structure (Gruber 2001: 259). In a complex thematic structure, an argument can be assigned multiple theta-roles, where each of the theta-roles is associated with a distinct thematic function. He gives the following representation for a serial verb construction from Yoruba (θ stands for theme, Γ stands for goal and Σ stands for source, PST stands for position, CTT stands for contact and CST stands for causation) (slightly simplified from Gruber 1990):


This structure shows that in the positional thematic function, “stone” is the theme and “house” is the goal. In the contact thematic function, “Olu” is the theme, and “stone” is the goal. Lastly, in the causation thematic function, “Olu” is the source, and the whole contact function is the theme. From this perspective, in a serial verb language, different verbs can introduce different thematic functions. A similar analysis (involving three thematic functions) is given to “The thieves broke the door” in English. The rest of Jeff’s career was devoted to exploring the syntactic representation and empirical consequences of these complex thematic structures.

After leaving Nigeria in 1991, Jeff was briefly a visiting scholar at MIT. He then went to Montreal to work as a research associate on the UQAM “Modularity of Grammar” project (director: Anna Maria Di Sciullo), funded by the SSRC from 1992 to 1997. During this time, he further developed his ideas about configurational theta-theory. His contributions to this project included Gruber 1996, 1997, Gruber and Collins 1997 and Di Sciullo and Gruber 1993.

In his final years, he was a visiting scholar in the Department of Linguistics at MIT, attending talks and departmental events.

Jeff was an accomplished painter. He painted throughout his life without formal training. He described his paintings in the following way: ''My paintings I find belong to the genre of visionary art, taking influence from Blake, Escher, Tobey. They are mystical and spiritual in content, while employing a kind of articulation or binding of space in their construction of form. Such binding of space may be achieved through the tessellation or aggregation of specific shapes or strokes, as pixels or quanta, or interstitial tracings” ( A gallery of his paintings can be found at:

During his final years, Jeff suffered from Parkinson’s disease, which often made him anxious and made it difficult for him to type e-mail messages. In spite of this debilitating obstacle, he worked hard to put his initial descriptive work on ǂHoã into publishable form (Collins and Gruber, forthcoming).

List of Publications:
1965. Studies in Lexical Relations. Doctoral Dissertation, MIT.
1966. Playing with Distinctive Features in the Babbling of Infants. Quarterly Progress Report No. 89. Research Laboratory of Electronics, MIT.
1967a. Functions of the Lexicon in Formal Descriptive Grammars. Santa Monica, California: Systems Development Corporation.
1967b. Topicalization in Child Language. Foundations of Language 3.1, 37-65.
1967c. On the Selection of a Universal Auxiliary Language. World Order. Wilmette, Illinois: Baha’i Publishing Trust. Also in International Language Review, XIV: 50, March 1967-1968, 7-13.
1967d. Look and See. Language 43.4, 937-947.
1971. Topicalization in Child Language. In Bar-Adon, Leopold (ed.), Child Language – A Book of Readings, 364-482. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.
1973a. Kinship Terms in ǂHȍã. Linguistic Inquiry 4, 427-449.
1973b. A story in /Gwi with some linguistic descriptions (unpublished).
1973c. Correlations between the Syntactic Constructions of the Child and the Adult. In Ferguson, C.A. and D.I. Slobin (eds.), Studies of Child Language Development, 440-445. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston (originally presented at the Society for Research in Child Development Conference, New York, 31 March 1967).
1973d. Playing with Distinctive Features in the Babbling of Infants. In Ferguson, C.A. and D.I. Slobin (eds.), Studies in Child Language Development, 4-9. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston
1975a. Plural Predicates in ǂHȍã. In Traill, A. (ed.), Bushman and Hottentot Linguistic Studies (A.S.I. Communication 2), 1-50. University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg: African Studies Institute.
1975b. Bushman Languages of the Kalahari: ǂHoã – vocabulary – stems, ǂHoã – vocabulary – recorded utterances. Technical project report to the National Endowment for the Humanities, Washington D.C.
1975c. ǂHȍã Grammatical Notes and Vocabulary. Ms., unpublished.
1975d. The Structure of Bushman Verb Juxtaposition. Ms., Gaborone, Botswana.
1975e. The Expression of the Agentive Noun Derived from the Verb. Ms., Gaborone, Botswana.
1975f. ‘Topicalization’ Revisited. Foundations of Language 13.1, 57-72.
1975g. Performative-Constative Transition in Child Language Development. Foundations of Language 12.4, 513-527.
1976. Lexical Structures in Syntax and Semantics. Amsterdam: Elsevier/North Holland.
1982. Lexical and Conceptual Semantic Categories. Proceedings of the XIII International Congress of Linguistics, Tokyo, Japan, August 29 – September 4, 1982. 10pp.
1985a. Lexical, Conceptual and Encyclopedic Meaning. Quaderni di Semantica, 254-266.
1985b. Akosile ti Baha’i. Lagos: Baha’i Publishing Trust Nigeria. 120 pp. (A translation of Bahá’í Scriptural Writings; headed the committee of translation.)
1986. Frame Information and Lexically-Based Inference. Quaderni di Semantica, 58-77.
1990. Complex Thematic Structures. Ms., presented to MIT Lexicon Project Workshop, 31, October 1990.
1992. Proper argument projection in Igbo and Yoruba. In Collins, C. T. and V. B. Manfredi (ed.), Proceedings of the Kwa comparative syntax workshop, 139-164. Cambridge, MA: MIT.
1993. Lexical Insertion in Derivational Morphology. Quatrième rencontre annuelle de l'Atelier Canadien sur les Relations Lexique-Syntaxe, Toronto. [with Anna Maria Di Sciullo]
1994. Principles of a Configurational Theta-Theory. In Y.-S. Kim, B.-C. Lee, K.-J. Lee, H.-K. Yang and J.-Y. Yoon (eds.), A Festshcrift for Dong-Whee Yang: Explorations in Generative Grammar, 69-111. Seoul, Korea: Hankuk Publishing Co.
1995a. Thematic configurationality and serial verb constructions. In Emenanjo, E. N. and O.-Mekuri Ndimele (eds.), Issues in African languages and linguistics: Essays in honour of Kay Williamson, 216-228. Aba, Nigeria: National Institute for Nigerian Languages.
1995. Constraining XP-sequences. In Manfredi, Victor B. and Karl H. Reynolds (eds.), Niger-Congo syntax and semantics 6, 1-30. Boston: African Studies Center, Boston University. [with Katherine Alison Demuth]
1996. Configurational Accounts of Thematic Linking Regularities: The Possessional-Spatial Asymmetry. In Anna Maria Di Sciullo (ed.), Configurations: Essays on Form and Interpretation. Ithaca, NY: Cascadilla Press.
1997a. Modularity in a Configurational Theta Theory. In Anna Maria Di Sciullo (ed.), Projections and Interface Conditions: Essays on Modularity, 155-200. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
1997b. Argument projection, thematic configurationality, and Case theory. In Anna Maria Di Sciullo (ed.), Projections and Interface Conditions: Essays on Modularity, 130-154. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [with Chris Collins]
1998a. A Configurational Approach to Thematic Binding. In H. Bennis, P. Pica, J. Rooryck (eds.), Atomism and Binding, 155-182. Dordrecht: Foris.
1998b. Language and Justice in the New World Order. World Order 29.3, 7-28. Wilmette, Illinois: Baha’i Publishing Trust.
2001. Thematic Relations in Syntax. In Mark Baltin and Chris Collins (eds.), The Handbook of Contemporary Syntactic Theory, 257-198. Oxford: Blackwell.
2004. Beyond Linguistic Conflict: Spiritual Foundations of a Universal Auxiliary Language. In Charles Lerche (ed.), Healing the Body Politic: Bahá’í Perspectives on Peace and Conflict. London: George Ronald.
Forthcoming. A Grammar of ǂHȍã with Vocabulary, Recorded Utterances and Oral Texts. (Quellen zur Khoisan-Forschung). Cologne: Rüdiger Köppe. [with Chris Collins]

Thesis Supervision:
Osunde, Ifueko. 1987. Aspects of the Ideophone in Edo. B.A. Thesis, University of Benin, Benin City, Nigeria.
Taiwo, Olurotimi Olorunfemi. 1987. Syntactic Tests for Yoruba Serial Verb Structures. B.A. Thesis, University of Benin, Benin City, Nigeria.
Cookey-Gam, Nigel Adonye. 1987. Serial Verb Constructions and their Analysis in Nigerian Pidgin English. B.A. Thesis, University of Benin, Benin City, Nigeria.
Stewart, Osamuyimen Thompson. 1987. Syntactic Configurations of Edo Serial ‘Verbal’ Constructions. B.A. Thesis, University of Benin, Benin City, Nigeria.
Ozigbo, Enoghayin Stella. 1987. A Study of Aspectual Character in Verbs in Edo Based on Time Schemata. B.A. Thesis, University of Benin, Benin City, Nigeria.
Ogwueleka, Obiukwu S. 1987. Thematic Roles and Syntactic Processes in Igbo. Ph.D. Thesis, University of Ife, Ile-Ife.
Ogbuchi, Constance. 1988. The Dependency of Case Marking on Theta-Roles in “Igbo Language” (Central Igbo). B.A. Thesis, University of Benin, Benin City, Nigeria.
Eghobamien, Iyobosa. 1988. Parameters and Aspects of Case Marking and Thematic Relation in Edo. B.A. Thesis, University of Benin, Benin City, Nigeria.
Eferakorho, Jite. 1990. Projection of Lexical Specification in Complex Predicates in Yoruba. B.A. Thesis, University of Benin, Benin City, Nigeria.
Odigie, Odion Fidelia. 1990. Aspects of Lexical Projection in Esan Serial Verb Construction. B.A. Thesis, University of Benin, Benin City, Nigeria.
Uyanne, Chiaodili Grace. 1991. Constraints on Semantic Relations/Syntactic Structures in Igbo SVCs. B.A. Thesis, University of Benin, Benin City, Nigeria.
Anyoha, Ndubu-Izu Franklin. 1991. Semantic Constraints and Syntactic Correlation of Serial Verbs in Yoruba. B.A. Thesis, University of Benin, Benin City, Nigeria.
Owumi, Otega Osas. 1991. Contrast in the Semantic Relations of Edo Serial ‘Verbal’ Constructions. B.A. Thesis, University of Benin, Benin City, Nigeria.
Abu-Osagie, Ransley. 1991. Some Aspects of Possessor Raising in Edo (Bini). B.A. Thesis, University of Benin, Benin City, Nigeria.
Imhankon, Julie O. A. 1991. Thematic Relations and Case Marking in Relation to Serial Verb Constructions in Esan. B.A. Thesis, University of Benin, Benin City, Nigeria.

Other Works Cited:
Collins, Chris. 2001. Aspects of Plurality in ǂHoan. Language 77, 456-476.
Collins, Chris. 2002. Multiple Verb Movement in ǂHoan. Linguistic Inquiry 33, 1-29.
Collins, Chris. 2003. The Internal Structure of vP in Ju|’Hoansi and ǂHoan. Studia
Linguistica 57, 1-25.
Heine, Bernd and Henry Honken. 2010. The Kx’a Family: A New Khoisan Genealogy. Journal
of Asian and African Studies 79, 5-36.
Jackendoff, Ray. 2014. Genesis of a theory of language: From thematic roles (source) to the Parallel Architecture (goal). Ms., Tufts University.

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