Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Edward Klima (1931-2008)

A major contributor to linguistics and the neuroscience of language, Edward Klima, died last week. I had the good fortune to collaborate with and learn from Ed for more than a decade. Two things stand out for me in Ed's approach to science. He didn't put up with any bullshit or impreciseness in a theory -- to use the Klima vernacular -- and he wasn't shy about telling you if you were shoveling something. At the same time, he was probably the most intellectually unbiased and open-minded scholar I've met. Unlike a lot of people in our field (and I assume science generally), he had no theoretical agenda, would listen to and thoughtfully consider the merits of any idea (retaining the good bits and tossing the B.S.), and was more than willing to change his position in light of new evidence. He simply wanted to figure out how language worked. I count Ed as one of the most influential people in my academic career.

These days, Ed is probably best known for his work on sign language. With his wife and academic complement, Ursula Bellugi, Ed published dozens of papers, and a couple of very influential and award-winning books, on the structure of sign language and its neural basis. Before Ed's work, sign language was largely thought to be an unstructured system of pantomimic gestures. It is now known that signed languages are highly structured systems that share many grammatical properties with spoken languages. But before his well known work on signed languages, Ed had already made a mark on the field of language science. His work on English negation in the 1960s was in the vanguard of early research in the budding field of generative linguistics. He was also among the first to recognize that grammaticality judgements are not always cut and dry -- an issue that is prominent in generative linguistic research today.

Ed left his mark in other ways. He was founder of UCSD's Department of Linguistics, Adjunct Professor and co-director (with Ursula Bellugi) of the Laboratory for Cognitive Neuroscience at the Salk Institute, and mentored dozens of Ph.D. students, post docs, and young investigators, myself included, who have made their own contributions to the science of language.

I personally will miss Ed's wry, and sometimes wicked (but always entertaining) sense of humor, and his giddy excitement about a clever idea (his or not), a novel experimental result, or a beautiful piece of art. Most of all I will miss his friendship, depth of knowledge, and guidance. To be a close colleague of Ed's (and Ursula's) is to be part of a family. I am proud to be a part of that family. We'll miss you Ed!

1 comment: said...

I'm the former SysAdmin for the LCN lab at the Salk. During my time in the lab, I really enjoyed my interactions with Dr. Klima, and his very dry, witty sense of humour.

I'm quite saddened by his passing.