An obituary by Beth Hume
In memoriam: G. Nick Clements
It is with great sadness that we learned of the passing of G. Nick Clements, who died on Sunday, September 30, 2009 in Chatham, Massachusetts from cancer. Nick Clements's career as a linguist spanned nearly forty years, during which he contributed to our understanding of phonetics, of phonological theory, and of a range of languages of Africa and Europe. After receiving his PhD from the School of African and Oriental Studies in 1973 for a study of Ewe syntax, he spent nine years in Cambridge, Massachusetts, working first at MIT and then at Harvard. He moved to Cornell University in 1982, where he was professor of Linguistics and director of the phonetics laboratory. In 1992, he became Directeur de Recherche at the CNRS in Paris, France, which became the home of his work from that time onward. He was an invited professor and lecturer around the world, and taught at many prestigious linguistics institutes both in the United States and abroad. Nick's many contributions to the field of linguistics were innovative and influential, and an inspiration to many. Guided by keen insights and a rigorous scientific method, his search for the truth about a particular aspect of language advanced our understanding of the categorization and organization of phonological units, of African syntax and tone, of vowel harmony systems, of the phonetics-phonology interface, among many others areas. His studies were always the epitome of careful scientific research and elegant argumentation.
Those among us who were honored to have been associated with Nick will forever remember him as a man of tremendous humility, a sincere and careful listener, and a creative thinker with the ability to masterfully synthesize ideas and data so as to bring clarity to some long-standing problem. His kind and fun-loving spirit touched many, but none more so than the family he loved so much: his life partner, Annie Rialland, his children, William and Célia, and his brother, sisters and their families.
I know that I speak for so many in saying that it was an honor and a privilege to have been associated with such a great man.
Professor and Chair
Department of Linguistics
The Ohio State University
PROLOGUE: Tales from Three Parisian Restaurants
I. It was a nice sunny day in Paris in June 2007 when I met Nick and Annie for lunch on a sidewalk cafe on the Av. de la Motte. No sooner had I sat down when Nick asks, “Larry, do you think tones have features?” Like other phonologists, I had been vaguely thinking about this question, but given our past relationship, I was not surprised at all that Nick had gotten there before me. When Beth Hume invited me to the Tones and Features Symposium in honor of Nick, it seemed entirely appropriate, therefore, that I speak on this subject where he had so greatly influenced me in the past.
II. Fast forward to a mild day in December 2008 when I was again in Paris. Nick had suggested that we meet with Annie for lunch at Le Pré Verre in the 5e. Having touched on a number of subjects, we inevitably slid back into tone. Not knowing what his role had been in planning the Tones and Features Symposium, or how much detail knew about its contents, I announced to him that I would be coming back for a workshop in Paris in June 2009 to present a paper entitled “Do tones have features?” I saw him light up with a playful smile as he slowly replied, “Well... Alexis Michaud, Cédric Patin and I are presenting a paper, also at a workshop in Paris in June, entitled ‘Do tones have features?’” We laughed after which I replied, “Hmm, maybe we should join forces?” Nick then suggested that it could be more interesting if we saw what we came up with independently—and it was: Although citing different phenomena, we agreed entirely, except that the three authors changed their title to “Do we need tone features?”
III. The Symposium was a great event, intellectually, humanly, and gastronomically. At the symposium dinner au Train Bleu, Lauren and I had the honor of sitting next to Nick and Annie. This of course gave us more opportunities to talk, not so much about linguistic issues, but about past fun times together. Since it was a bit noisy to make testimonial speeches, I instead gave him a bit of my speech personally. Like the other presenters, I had said a few special words about Nick before presenting my talk, but I had a lot more to reminisce about. We talked about the letter he had written to me from SOAS around 1972 about serial verbs, after which I brought up one of the first times we had met: It was a symposium on Tone, Stress and Intonation organized by Donna Jo Napoli at Georgetown in 1977. Jean-Marie Hombert and I were already seated waiting for the symposium to begin when Nick entered, walked directly up to Donna Jo and gave her a big, audible bisou. I told Nick how I remembered thinking how much this guy had everything I aspired to: He’s tall, he’s brilliant, and he gets to kiss the girls! Nick broke out laughing, but quickly corrected me: “Larry,” he said, “Donna Jo is Italian—I’m sure it was rather that she kissed me!” Quite by coincidence, Donna Jo emailed me as I was preparing my handout in Berkeley and I shared my funny memory with her too.
I told Nick that I had wanted to continue the joke about our two overlapping talks at Le Pré Verre in 2008, when I could have asked him whether he thought it was fair, three against one? “Shouldn’t we even out the playing field?” My proposed humorous answer was that he would respond, “Why? Do you think that Alexis, Cédric and I need a couple more people to join us?” But I didn’t think this would be in character: Nick would not answer a question with a question, rather with an answer.
I was so happy to have the opportunity to reiminsce further, and bring up several other incidents and exchanges we had had over the past 37 years, which we both looked back on with amusement. During this period I have repeatedly thanked Nick in person for his generosity and his sensitive understanding and support of others, including myself. (We heard a very moving written tribute from Fidèle Mpiranya at the Train Bleu dinner.) Everyone will agree he was a brilliant and innovative scholar whose influence will continue to impact linguistics for many decades to come. Equally important for everyone who knew him was the person. Nick was a prince among linguists.
University of California, Berkeley
Nick Clements was my introduction to generative phonology in my second year in the doctoral program at Cornell University. He was a phenomenal teacher, and almost made a phonologist out of me. It was through his guidance and encouragement that I pursued research into the development of tone from Middle to Modern Chinese. Although my research program did not ultimately continue down this path, I learned some of my best lessons about the conduct of research from Nick. Years later, when I was assigned to teach advanced phonology at the U of SC (to fill in for someone who had left), it was the course notes from Nick’s class that served as my principle guide. I still have those notes.
Far from “just” being an exceptional teacher and mentor, Nick was one of the kindest colleagues one could have. I feel lucky to have had him as a teacher, and to have known him for these many years after.
University of South Carolina
A note of thanks
There is no doubt that Nick Clements will be remembered as one of the most productive and original phonologists of the 20th century and early 21st century on issues such as feature theory, syllable structure, and tonal representations with applications to a staggering number of languages, among which many African languages. I personally remember writing to him in 1985 to ask him questions about his 1983 book (with S.J. Keyser) 'CV Phonology: A Generative Theory of the Syllable'. I did not know him at the time but already thought of him with a certain awe given his rising fame. I was surprised to receive a letter back within a few days. (Email was not so common then.) His response was detailed, frank in his discussion of various possible difficulties for his account of syllable structure and extremely friendly. I felt flattered that Nick Clements should reply with so much kindness to somebody perfectly unknown to him. Thereafter I regularly met Nick Clements at various venues and was always impressed by his openness and generosity. Working in a minority framework, that of Dependency Phonology, I always felt that Nick was able to transcend theoretical frameworks to see what different proposals had in common and not what opposed them. It seems to me that he built important bridges between North America and Europe and was a true "passeur" who got the best out of all of us. In recent years, his work on the interface between phonology and phonetics showed once again the way forward for linguistic science.
I feel profoundly indebted to Nick Clements and deeply saddened that he left us so so abruptly. I wish to convey my sincere condolences to his wife - our friend Annie Rialland - his children and his family. I also know how much all his colleagues at the Laboratoire de Phonétique et de Phonologie in Paris 3 will miss him and how his passing away will leave an enormous gap there as well as within our whole community.
Université de Toulouse II, CNRS & Institut Universitaire de France
Philippe Blache et Noël Nguyen
Cher(es) collègues et ami(e)s,
Nous avons appris avec beaucoup de tristesse la disparition de Nick Clements et nous souhaitons vous présenter nos plus sincères condoléances au nom de l’ensemble des membres du laboratoire Parole et langage. Cela fut un privilège de le côtoyer au sein du CNRS et de bénéficier de son formidable apport à notre discipline. Au-delà de cette contribution scientifique d’exception, nous souhaitons rendre hommage à un collègue dont les grandes qualités humaines ont été saluées par toutes celles et tous ceux qui ont eu l’honneur de l’approcher.
Pour le LPL,
Philippe Blache et Noël Nguyen
Laboratoire Parole et Langage
To all of us who knew him, Nick was the embodiment of a fine scholar, and his contributions to the field will resonate for many years. The project that resulted in the two recent meeting in
My two most vivid memories of Nick, aside from the Features conferences, involve sitting at a table drinking coffee and telling him about my most dearly-held theoretical convictions. One was about 35 years ago, at a cafe in
Dear colleagues who are organizing this website in tribute to Nick,
would like to add a word of appreciation and gratitude, echoing what
have said. I got to know Nick around 1990, towards the end of my
studies, as I was aiming to become a Bantuist and looking for role
models in my
chosen field. Nick was an obvious role model from his work. He'd
papers on tone and other areas of autosegmental phonology, on syllable
structure, on the phonology-syntax interface. What I didn't
expect when I
first met him was that he would also turn in to a role model as a
was approachable and interested in the ideas of beginners like me,
take our ideas seriously enough to make them better because he took
seriously. His grave and thoughtful manner overlay a real kindness and
thoughtfulness towards others and a sense of humor that I got to
I continued to see him at irregular intervals at conferences over the
was an honor to be in the audience at the Symposium honoring him this
June, to hear all the stories others had to tell about how he'd
to learn again from his own talk and the questions he had for the
others, and to
also appreciate him as a warm and human colleague at the symposium
dinner as we
laughed at the stories he and Larry had to tell. He'll
always be a role model.
Zentrum für Allgemeine Sprachwissenschaft
Samuel Jay Keyser
When I received Annie’s note that Nick had died, I wrote: “I am heartbroken, for you, the children, for Nick and for myself. You have lost a husband and a father. I've lost an irreplaceable friend, one who is so much a part of my life that his death is a little of my own.”
My reaction was not about Nick. It was about me. I suppose mine was a natural reaction. It was a way of protecting myself from the full brunt of the loss by focusing on myself and not on Nick.
Now, a month away from that terrible moment, I am able to think of him. I think of an incomparable colleague with whom I wrote a book in MIT’s Building 20, a building that, like Nick, is gone but will not be forgotten. We often worked at night until 2 or 3 in the morning, checking the pages as they came out of the printer. We had to do this over the telephone because the printer was located in a building a block away. Nick would proof the pages as they came out. Then he would telephone to tell me what changes to make. I would enter them on my computer in Building 20, press the print command and wait for his next phone call. So it went until the full text of CV Phonology was produced.
What a labor of love that was. Both he and I wanted to give MIT Press copy that it could take straight to the printer. We wanted the Press to sell the book at the lowest possible price.
Nick was proud of that book. I know because a year and a half ago he told me that it was the most cited book in phonology on some research index that I have forgotten the name of. It was the only time I can remember Nick ever allowing himself out loud the luxury of being pleased with something he had done.
He was the most self-effacing scholar and friend I have ever met. He was also the gentlest and freest from animus. When someone criticized CV Phonology, where I would immediately adopt a defensive crouch, ready to fight back, Nick would quietly go about assessing the criticism as if it were made about someone else’s work.
years ago when Nick came to Boston
for treatment, he and Annie asked me if I would take care of a painting
him. It was a copy of Giorgione’s Madonna
and Child with St. Anthony and St. Roch.
The copyist was Nick himself. He had made the copy at the Museo del Prado in
The painting hung in my office for several months before Nick was well enough to return to Paris. While it was with me, I would examine it carefully, trying to imagine why Nick chose it. I suppose it offered some treacherous technical exercise in chiaroscuro that would have extended Nick’s command of the medium. But I have always favored another explanation. The painting is completely at peace with itself. It is an image of serene repose before the coming catastrophe of the Crucifixion.
I think of Nick that way, someone who had managed to find that place of serenity in spite of the coming catastrophe.
Nick was planning a visit to Cambridge. He was spending the summer on the Cape. Not having heard from him for a bit, I wrote to suggest some days when we might meet. He said the days I’d picked wouldn’t work, that his children were coming. There was not a hint of the crisis he was entering. In the end Annie told me that Nick wanted to spare his friends the anguish of seeing him suffer.
Perhaps that was an act of pride. But I shall always remember him in the Giorgione he chose to copy. I will never look at the painting without seeing Nick. On second thought perhaps I will never look at that painting again.
October 7, 2009
I first met Nick around 1980, he stood out as formidably intelligent
knowledgable, and very shy. So I was shy in return, and as I was
awe of him too, I spoke with him very little until one day we walked up
Ave together and I discovered how exceptionally nice and
unassuming he was--and interesting too, about all sorts of things. That walk left a strong impression. Our paths crossed very little until about four years ago, when he invited me to contribute to one of his Features conferences. It was through that conference that I learned just what a truly remarkable person Nick was. He was more than understanding and generous when unexpected family commitments made me ask to leave the conference early. And then, as editor with Pierre Halle of the conference proceedings (a special issue in Journal of Phonetics), he gave me a truly joyful experience in writing up the paper. I have never before had the privilege of such a wonderful combination of incisive yet constructive criticism over a wide range of subject matter, complete freedom to follow my own ideas, and enthusiastic respect and encouragement, even when my paper was late. It was an exciting experience of scholarship at its best. When I included Nick and Pierre in my acknowledgements, they wrote: "we believe we're just doing our job as editors and that editors should not, as a rule, be acknowledged by name." Respecting their views as I did, I thought hard about this, then acknowledged them anyway. I am so glad that I did.
Thank you, Nick, and Annie too, for your quiet kindness and lasting inspiration, and for going beyond the rules.
A mon sens, le plus grand hommage que nous devons faire à M. Clements doit passer par des mots. En effet, en de pareilles circonstances, les mots ont un effet de consolation magique. Mais n’oublions pas que c’est à ses unités qu’il a consacré une bonne partie de sa vie pour comprendre leurs structures. Finalement, ce sont, peut-être les mots eux-mêmes qui essaient, à travers nous, de lui rendre hommage.
Je suis convaincu que c’est l’intelligence exceptionnelle de M. Clements combinée à sa passion pour la recherche qui lui ont permis d’avoir une érudition et une production quantitativement et qualitativement extraordinaire. Je suis persuadé que les joies des nombreuses découvertes qu’il faisait l’aidaient à renouveler l’énergie physique qu’il dépensait pour continuer à alimenter sa curiosité scientifique personnelle ainsi que ses productions.
M. Clements partageait facilement non seulement ses découvertes, mais également ses intuitions. Il accordait suffisamment de temps et d’intérêts aux travaux des autres, malgré ses nombreux engagements scientifiques et personnels. Ses remarques et ses conseils étaient toujours très pertinents et très efficaces.
Personnellement, je dois beaucoup de choses à M. Clements ainsi qu’aux autres membres du laboratoire. C’est notamment grâce à lui que j’ai appris à appliquer rapidement les ingrédients principaux d’une étude scientifique complète: savoir formuler les bonnes problématiques en se basant sur les cadres théoriques existants, savoir collecter les données pertinentes, et savoir élaborer une analyse et discussion théorique et empirique rigoureuses de ses données.
M. Clements ne négligeait aucune de ses trois étapes. En effet, même s’il avait ses propres modèles théoriques, il était ouvert aux autres conceptions théoriques ; il disait qu’elles doivent forcément contenir des idées positives. Inspirateur de la phonologie du laboratoire, il nous a appris à se donner tous les moyens pour collecter les données les plus pertinentes. Malgré le caractère très complexe des problématiques, il essayait toujours de trouver l’analyse la plus cohérente. Il savait que si on respectait ces critères, la conséquence logique ne peut être qu’un travail bien argumenté et des données très précieuses et atemporelles.
Je pense que l’une des caractéristiques majeures qui ressort des idées de M. Clements est leur constance. Il est parmi les rares auteurs dont les travaux ont su garder une continuité naturelle sans jamais se contredire, et ce, malgré leur quantité très importante.
M. Clements a beaucoup apporté à son équipe et à la science en générale. Ses précieux apports ont eu lieu grâce également à sa générosité débordante, sa patience et sa faculté d’écoute extraordinaire.
Ses qualités intellectuelles et humaines susciteront toujours chez les personnes qui l’ont connu à la fois du respect et de l’admiration. Il restera toujours dans ma mémoire, puisqu’il a su me convaincre de partager plusieurs de ses idées.
Faculté Polydisciplinaire de Taza
I met, or
should I say, saw Nick for the first time at a chaotic meeting of some
I followed Nick’s work closely in the area of syllable theory, in the area of tone and its role in the grammar and in the area of feature geometry. The time of his extremely important contributions in these areas coincided with my own interest, and I read and reread his papers. He’s a linguist for whom I have always had the deepest respect.
Now that he is gone, I find myself sorely regretting we didn’t cross paths personally more often than we did over the years. In the times that we did spend together, he was utterly generous both intellectually and personally. I would have loved to have learned more about him, and to have had more experience of the pleasure of being with him. I would have loved to have heard him play the jazz piano.
University of Massachusetts
This is a late answer to your last letter. You kindly asked me to revise my chapter for the book on the origin of features/contrasts. I was just willing to answer you when I learned that you crossed the river.
Sadly, I won’t meet you as planned. I still have a lot to learn from your contribution to the geometry of phonology. Thank you so much Nick.
Laboratoire Psychologie de la Perception
Nos condoléances les plus sincères pour la disparition du Grand Bonhomme que fut Nick Clements. Ici, les phonéticiens strasbourgeois l'appréciaient beaucoup pour sa clairvoyance scientifique, son intérêt pour les travaux cinéradiographiques, et son humanisme. Il restera toujours présent dans nos esprits de chercheurs.
Amitiés de tout l'IPS, et à bientôt !
Institut de Phonétique de Strasbourg (IPS) & Composante Parole et Cognition (PC)