Saturday, December 21, 2019

Remembering Sam Epstein (by Chris Collins)

Sam Epstein was professor at Harvard from 1988 to 1997. During this time, he directed the thesis work of a string of stellar syntax students, including (amongst others) Hisa Kitahara, Geoffrey Poole, Dianne Jonas, Erich Groat, John O’Neill and Marylse Baptista. These students were all an integral part of the Cambridge syntax community. I often saw them at MIT talks, and when I went to Harvard to attend a talk. Some of them are still close colleagues today (most notably Erich Groat, with whom I have had the pleasure of collaborating in recent years).

From 1988 to 1993, I was at MIT as a graduate student, just down the road from Harvard (within walking distance). I think at the time I took the Harvard syntax community for granted. Yes, they were doing spectacular syntax, but everybody in that geographical community (MIT, Harvard, UCONN, UMASS) was doing spectacular syntax. In retrospect, after having taught at two universities (Cornell 1993-2005, NYU 2005-present), I understand the uniqueness of what Sam was able to accomplish at Harvard. He mentored a string of extremely talent graduate students who wrote influential syntax theses. He fit in with the Chomskyan project of minimalist syntax being developed at the time, but was not overshadowed by it. In fact, his work (and that of his students) contributed major results to minimalist syntax, helping to define it and articulate it in deep and insightful ways. It takes a very special person to do what Sam did at Harvard, one who has the research skills and who is also able to mentor students in just the right way.

The paper of Sam’s that probably had the greatest influence on me was his 1999 paper “Un-Principled Syntax and the Derivation of Syntactic Relations.” (Working Minimalism, S. Epstein, and N. Hornstein, eds. p. 317-345. MIT Press: Cambridge, MA). I remember feeling that it was a paper completely different from other things I had read, but utterly compelling. About c-command, he broke it down and asked a series of questions about why it was defined in the way it was (pg. 324). He relentlessly pursued this line of questioning in a way that set the standard for the field. In retrospect, I believe his paper probably gave me the courage to write my 2002 paper “Eliminating Labels”. And in fact, Sam (and Daniel Seely) helped me to publish that paper by inviting me to contribute to their volume “Derivation and Explanation in the Minimalist Program”. Of course, Sam wrote many wonderful syntax papers, most of which I have read and studied. In the latter part of his career he often collaborated with Hisa Kithara and Daniel Seely, in a team we refer to as EKS in the syntax community.

My last in-person contact with Sam was on Friday November 9, 2018. He wrote me to say that he would be in NYC and could we meet: “No agenda, just wanted to touch base and Minimalistically commiserate!!” We got together and had a lovely meeting, sitting in the brisk weather on a bench in Washington Square Park. Both during that meeting, and before and after, we had discussions covering lots of topics, including: minimalism, implicit arguments, my joint work with Erich Groat, my objections to Distributed Morphology and velveteen clowns! I had been working on the implicit argument in the passive and told him how much I appreciated his 1984 paper “Quantifier-pro and the LF Representation of PROarb” (Linguistic Inquiry 15(3): 499-505), which seemed very much in the spirt of the kinds of things that I had been arguing for.

Sam had a wonderful sense of humor that shows through in our correspondence about this meeting. I feel very grateful that I was able to meet with him that one last time.

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