Paul Chapin

Posted: July 2015

The LSA mourns the July 1, 2015 death of Paul Chapin, LSA member since 1965, Life Member of the Society, Fellow of the LSA (Class of 2008) and former Secretary-Treasurer (2003-2008). More information will be posted here as it becomes available.

Memorial statement prepared by Tom Bever, Merrill Garrett, and Cecile McKee (University of Arizona):
The language sciences lost a truly valued defender and friend on July 1, 2015, with the death of Paul Gipson Chapin from Acute Myeloid Leukemia, in Tucson Arizona. Paul was born December 27, 1938, in El Paso Texas, son of John Letcher Chapin and Velma Gipson Chapin. In 1962, he married Susan Levy of New York, his beloved spouse of 53 years who survives him and will continue to reside in Tucson. Other survivors are: sister Clare Ratliff of Santa Fe, NM; children Ellen Endress of Beltsville, MD, John Chapin of Alexandria, VA, Robin Chapin of Honolulu, HI, and Noelle Green of Sherman Oaks, CA; and grandchildren Kasey Chapin of Woodland, WA and Malia Green of Sherman Oaks, CA.

Paul received his B.A. from Drake University in 1960 and his Ph.D. from MIT in 1967 as a student of Noam Chomsky. He served as Assistant Professor at UCSD from 1967 to 1975, in a newly forming department. During this period, he developed a particular interest in psycholinguistics, and made early contributions to its initial growth. He then had an opportunity at NSF to be of use as a broad organizer of the language sciences in general. He directed the National Science Foundation’s Linguistics Program from 1975 to 1999, declining several offers to move up to higher positions in NSF. Between 1999 and his retirement in 2001, Paul supported cross-directorate activities at NSF. When he retired, NSF gave him the Director’s Superior Accomplishment Award. The Linguistic Society of America gave him the first Victoria A. Fromkin Award for Distinguished Service to the Profession that same year. He later served as Secretary-Treasurer of the LSA from 2008-2013. He was elected a fellow of the Linguistic Society of America, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Association for Psychological Sciences.

As a 1967 Ph.D. graduate from MIT, Paul could have expressed a particular professional bias for generative grammar while at NSF. But even as a student, he was eclectic and was as interested in languages as in their structure.  His first graduate program was in Philosophy at Harvard for a year. He subsequently became a student at MIT, but worked for most of that time in the MITRE Corporation’s pioneering lab in computational linguistics – indeed, he later became President of the Association of Computational Linguistics in 1977. His dissertation, “On the syntax of word-derivation in English,” argued against the then prevailing view that transformations preserve meaning; he showed that in the terms of the current theory (essentially an early version of the Aspects model), there is a cycle of transformations internal to complex words that modify their meaning: this can be seen as a premonition of Generative Semantics treatment of lexical items, and today’s principles of Derivational Morphology. During his period as an assistant professor in the linguistics program at UCSD, Paul published papers on a range of topics, including articles from his dissertation, analyses of Samoan, the history of Polynesian languages, methodological papers on computational topics (e.g., automatic morpheme stripping), experimental studies of sentence comprehension (e.g., on click location during sentence comprehension), and several important review articles. Theoretical frameworks for his investigations included transformational grammar, case grammar, and generative semantics, among others.

Thus, no one could have been more broadly trained to take on the task of managing the funding of NSF’s Linguistics Program. As much as any leading academic, he must be credited with shaping the field as it is today. His positive influence on linguistics cannot be overstated. Since NSF is the primary source of government support for the field, the NSF program director has a supremely important influence: Paul used this influence with a great sense of critical judgment but with an equal sense of impartiality in a field rife with academic conflicts. The 25 year period of his stewardship of the program, witnessed some of the most extreme disagreements within the language sciences, pitting rationalists against associationists, structuralists against functionalists, nativists against empiricists: They all were struggling for NSF support during a time of increasingly limited resources. Paul stood above these arguments, and insisted on supporting any affordable proposal that had promise for important results, both theoretical and empirical, whatever the philosophical stripe of the investigators. He could see past the intellectual commercials accompanying a project into its value in propelling the field forward. Without him, research support could easily have fallen into one camp or another with an ultimate loss for everyone.

Paul was first known to many of us professionally in his capacity as director of the NSF Linguistics Program. He was a consistent chaperone of ideas and research projects, gentle with his advice, generous with assistance in helping applicants modify their proposals to become more successful. His mellifluous basso profundo voice on the telephone (the earlier days were prior to email) still resonates in our memory of discussions about why our most recent proposal did not get funded, or needed some changes, or in fact did get funded. His tone was always the same, quiet, factual, friendly, and concerned to be helpful.  Indeed, a few years after his official retirement, he published an extraordinary book on how to write grant proposals and use them to formulate coherent research programs.

Paul was a witty and engaging personal friend, with wide ranging interests. He had a lifelong love of music, as a flute player, a singer, and in retirement serving on the board of the Desert Chorale in Santa Fe, NM. He enjoyed great food whether high cuisine or ethnic. He could always tell you where and when he had eaten his favorite version of any particular dish. He found most published crossword puzzles too easy. He collaborated with an online community from 2003-2012 to follow the Samuel Pepys diary on a day by day basis.

Family and friends remember Paul for his deep caring for others and his lifelong commitment to social progress. He will be sorely missed.

Memorial donations may be made to the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, TX.