Jim Lambek, 1922-2014

I learned the sad news today that the mathematician Joachim Lambek (Jim to all of us who knew him) passed away yesterday at the age of 91.    Jim was one of my mentors and an external committee member for my Ph.D.     Jim will be known to mathematicians (of whom I suppose relatively few if any will read this blog) for his many articles in formal subjects far beyond my knowledge or ability, but also as a warm and generous scholar.

I came to him in a rather roundabout way; in discussions with my advisor, Bruce Trigger, he suggested to me that if I really wanted to do this numbers thing, then I should have a mathematician on my committee just to make sure I wasn’t mucking things up too badly.  As it turned out, I was very fortunate that Jim was at McGill, as he was a major pioneering figure in applying mathematical methods to linguistics (1958, 1979), had written several pieces on the analysis of kinship systems using techniques pioneered by, for instance, Floyd Lounsbury, had also published anthropological material with his son Michael (who I later met at the University of Toronto) (Lambek and Lambek 1981), and was also the co-author of a superior undergraduate text on the history of ancient mathematics, The heritage of Thales (Anglin and Lambek 1995).  At our first meeting I must have seemed such the infant, but he graciously passed me an offprint of his recent paper ‘A rewrite system of the Western Pacific’ (Bhargava and Lambek 1995) and suggested that we could have some future discussions, which we did.  His impact on Numerical Notation and on my work as a cognitively-oriented linguistic anthropologist is subtle but great.    I am hardly the sort of person who can summarize his much broader impact on his home discipline, except to say that he will be missed.

Anglin, WS, and Joachim Lambek. 1995. The Heritage of Thales. Springer.
Bhargava, Mira, and Joachim Lambek. 1995. “A rewrite system of the Western Pacific: Lounsbury’s analysis of Trobriand kinship terminology.” Theoretical linguistics 21 (2-3): 240-253.
Lambek, Joachim. 1958. “The mathematics of sentence structure.” American mathematical monthly:154-170.
Lambek, Joachim. 1979. “A mathematician looks at Latin conjugation.” Theoretical Linguistics 6 (1-3):221-234.
Lambek, Joachim, and Michael Lambek. 1981. “The kinship terminology of Malagasy speakers in Mayotte.” Anthropological linguistics:154-182.

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