Geoffrey K. Pullum: Biography

Geoffrey K. Pullum is a linguist specializing in the study of English, and has published on a wide variety of subjects falling within the scientific study of language, including syntax, phonetics, and the philosophy of linguistics. He is perhaps the only person who is a life member of the Linguistic Society of America, the International Phonetic Association, and the American Philosophical Association.

He was born in Irvine, Scotland in 1945; but not because of any Scots heritage: his father was flying for the Royal Air Force from an airfield in Ayrshire toward the end of the Second World War. He moved to southern England (West Wickham, in Kent) while still very young.

Elementary school did not go all that well, and high school did not go well at all. He drew little profit from attending the prestigious Eltham College in south London: he found the school insufficiently engaging intellectually, the school found him insufficiently serious about the work they expected, and both were probably right. But the result was that by the age of 16, he was a high school dropout.

Menial jobs in an industrial laundry and a London bookstore made it look like perhaps there was no further he could fall careerwise, but he found a way: he signed on as a piano player in a rock 'n' roll band, Sonny Stewart and the Dynamos, and worked in Germany in nightclub residencies and on American air bases. After a year and a half of that, Geoff returned to England to join his high school friend, guitarist Pete Gage, in forming a soul band: Geno Washington and the Ram Jam Band. The Ram Jam Band travelled all over Britain, appeared on the same bill with artists like the Kinks, the Rolling Stones, and Rufus ("Walking the Dog") Thomas, and had some recording success in the middle 1960s. But the tedium of life on the road as a rock musician was ultimately unendurable, and after the break-up of the original Ram Jam Band in 1967, Geoff headed for the glamour and excitement of a new world: higher education.

A year of repair work at the British equivalent of a community college was necessary to patch his sketchy high school record, but Geoff scraped his way to the point of meeting minimum conditions for university entrance and applied to six British universities. He got an offer of admission from just one: the University of York. The founding professor, Robert B. Le Page made a personal decision to take a chance on him. (Le Page died in January 2005, forty years after starting the department that stands as an enormous credit to his service to British linguistics.)

Geoff enrolled at York in 1968, and experienced something entirely new: for the first time he was doing intellectual work and taking it seriously. In 1972 he earned a B.A. in Language with First Class Honours. He then went on to spend a year as a postgraduate research student at King's College, Cambridge (1973-74), and began teaching linguistics at University College London in 1974 to escape the poverty of graduate student life — having married Joan Rainford (born in Kingston, Jamaica) in 1967, he now had a wife and son to support. He registered as an internal candidate for the doctorate at the University of London, and his Ph.D. in General Linguistics was awarded in 1976. His dissertation was entitled Rule Interaction and the Organization of a Grammar (it was published in 1979 by Garland, New York).

While lecturing at University College London one day in 1976, he observed that there was absolutely no sign in the literature of any genuine candidates for the status of a language with OVS or OSV as the basic order of constituents in the unmarked clause. A newly arrived doctoral student, Desmond C. Derbyshire, was in the audience, and informed him that in fact the Carib language Hixkaryana seemed to have quite rigidly fixed OVS constituent order in simple active declarative clauses. Derbyshire turned out to have been working on Hixkaryana for some fifteen years. This seemed to Geoff a very interesting discovery, and it led him to take a great interest in what Derbyshire had to say, and to become the main supervisor of Derbyshire's research for his 1979 doctoral dissertation on Hixkaryana. Together, Derbyshire and Pullum obtained Social Sciences Research Council funding for joint research on the languages of Amazonia, leading to the publication of the Handbook of Amazonian Languages (vol. 1, 1986; vol. 2, 1990; vol. 3, 1991; vol. 4, 1998).

In 1979, Margaret Thatcher stormed into power in Britain on a tide of racism. The vote share of the National Front, an openly Nazi party with a significant profile in urban areas, collapsed almost to nothing as the Conservative party took over their anti-immigrant platform and started talking about repatriation of non-white British residents. Since the black residents of Britain at the time included both Geoff's wife and his son, he was not quite as keen on the idea of throwing "the coloureds" out of the country as many of the British electorate seemed to be. He fled Britain the following year. He worked a year at the University of Washington and at Stanford University on visiting positions (1980-81), and since 1981 he has worked at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he is now Professor of Linguistics.

In the 1980s he developed in interest in computational linguistics, working for several years as a consultant at Hewlett-Packard Laboratories advising on matters relating to natural language processing (trying to make computers understand English: it hasn't happened yet), and collaborated with Gerald Gazdar, Ewan Klein, and Ivan Sag to produce the book Generalized Phrase Structure Grammar (1985).

He served from 1987 to 1993 as Dean of Graduate Studies and Research at Santa Cruz, a job that is to be warmly recommended to all those who enjoy being blamed for things they didn't do, being begged for things they haven't got, sitting in meetings with people they don't want to meet, and signing letters they didn't write. At one point during that period, in 1987, he was invited to the NASA Ames Research Center in his capacity as Dean of Graduate Studies and Research, but then the invitation was withdrawn when the Center learned that he was technically a foreigner in America. This rebuff from the government of his country of residence forced him to realize where he should get his loyalties in line with his passport status. He became an American citizen the same year.

He was a Fellow of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences in 1990-91, and during this time returned to rock music on a semi-professional basis for a while, playing guitar with the Palo Alto rock band Dead Tongues between 1991 and 1993. He has since embarked on just two other showbiz ventures: a radio acting career, playing the lead role of Jack Worthing (i.e., Ernest Moncrieff) in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest on the KUSP FM radio station in January 1996, and starring in a short horror film, His Eye, by director Bernadette Wilson, which has been shown at several film festivals.

He has never had one second of regret about moving his main professional life from show business to academia. As a rock musician, he visited a total of two (2) foreign countries: Germany and France. As a linguist he was ultimately invited to lecture in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Egypt, England, Finland, France, Germany, Holland, Hungary, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Russia, Singapore, and Spain, in addition to the US states of Arizona, California, Georgia, Hawai'i, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin (that's 19 down, 31 to go). So being a linguist didn't just bring more travel than being a rock musician, it brought vastly more.

His most important work is a large reference grammar written jointly with grammarian Rodney Huddleston in collaboration with a number of other linguists: The Cambridge Grammar of English (2002), which won the Leonard Bloomfield Book Award of the Linguistic Society of America in 2004. During that year he was named a Distinguished Professor of Humanities at UCSC. He is a regular contributor to Language Log, an influential and popular weblog on linguistics; he writes occasional popular articles on language; he gives popular talks on Australian radio; in February 2005 he published a new grammar textbook jointly with Rodney Huddleston; and in May 2006 a book of pieces from Language Log appeared: Far From the Madding Gerund and Other Dispatches from Language Log, by Mark Liberman and Geoff Pullum.

He has one son by his first marriage: Calvin James Pullum, now a software engineer working in the video game industry. He is now married to the philosopher Barbara C. Scholz, with whom he has done a significant amount of joint research on the philosophy of linguistics, the theoretical bases of developmental psycholinguistics, and the technical area of model-theoretic syntax.


File last revised Tue May 23 13:48:54 PDT 2006