In Memoriam: William Diver

Mon Nov 6 18:44:47 UTC 1995

William Diver, 74, Professor Emeritus of Linguistics at Columbia University,
perished on August 31 while sailing in Nantucket Harbor.  Diver was a major
intellect who founded and developed a unique school of linguistics.  Through
his teaching and mentoring, he formed a strong, active circle of students and
scholars who were intensely devoted to him because of his ideas, the excel-
lence of his teaching, and his personal qualities.  Although his fame was
limited largely to this circle, he will surely be seen by history as one of
the great linguists of the twentieth century.
     Diver began his career as an Indo-Europeanist, with a specialization in
Italic dialects and Homeric Greek.  He studied under Andre Martinet at Colum-
bia, receiving his Ph.D. in 1953 and appointment to the Columbia faculty in
1955.  He served as the editor of Word, the Journal of the Linguistic Circle
of NY, from 1956-1965, and was a member of the Societe de Linguistique de
     In the mid-1960's, Diver developed an interest in general linguistics and
began turning his attention to synchronic grammar and to phonology.  His ideas
were radically at odds with the contemporary mainstream ideas which were also
developing at that time.  The essentials of Diver's thought can be briefly
summarized as follows.
     1)  Diver demonstrated the inappropriateness of traditional categories of
grammar to analysis of language.  The Sentence and its parts--subject, predi-
cate, direct / indirect object, clause, phrase, etc.--as well as the parts of
speech stem from the classical interest in logic, and represent an analysis of
the structure and content of thought.  Traditional grammar, Diver realized,
began as an attempt to correlate linguistic structure with this logical struc-
ture.  For example, in the traditional account of the Greek and Latin nomina-
tive, accusative, and dative cases, there was an attempt to explain the occur-
rence of these morphologies in terms of categories of the structure of
thought: the nominative is the case of the subject, the accusative is the case
of the direct object, and the dative is the case of the indirect object.
     When, as frequently happens, direct objects turn up in the dative, and
predicates in the nominative, this attempt to correlate the two structures has
failed empirically.  However, rather than abandon the enterprise, traditional
grammars set up what Diver regarded as mere escape clauses: "government of the
dative", "predicate nominative".  Through such maneuvers, the theoretically
unmotivated part of traditional grammars came to dwarf the theoretically moti-
vated part, leading ultimately to a picture of language as a collection of ar-
bitrary devices, a type of human behavior not comparable to other, more readi-
ly understandable types of behavior.
     Thus, Diver regarded the categories of syntax simply as artifacts of an
unsuccessful attempt to explain linguistic phenomena in terms of the logic-
derived parts of the sentence and parts of speech, not as a revelation of some
unique human cognitive process.  He took issue with generative grammar on the
grounds that, rather than recognizing these categories as a consequence of
analytical failure, generative grammar bought heavily into the traditional
scheme and went on to build up a school of analysis which took it for granted,
thereby developing a view of language as having an important component of ar-
bitrary relations of the "government" type.  This was an unjustified conclu-
sion, Diver said, because the assumptions about linguistic categories lying at
its very base were faulty.
     2)  In Diver's view, the task of grammatical analysis is not to seek man-
ifestations of universal categories in languages, but to discover the unique
categories articulated by each language.  Here, his position was similar to
the anti-nomenclaturist view propounded by Saussure.  Diver wanted to explain
the outward face of language, what we actually observe, ultimately, the shape
of the sound waves of speech.  Diverian grammatical analyses focus on occur-
rences of forms in texts and discourse, the distribution of forms being re-
garded as the best overt clues to underlying categories of language.  Morphs
and morphemes are examined as potential bearers of linguistic meaning, so that
grammatical hypotheses very often take the form of signal-meaning pairs.
     3)  Diver articulated an innovative view of grammatical meaning, which
has come to be called an 'instrumental' view of meaning, in contrast to the
traditional compositional view.  In the compositional view, everything in a
linguistically communicated message is attributed to some element of linguis-
tic input, and a direct mapping between input and output is required.  Diver
recognized that communicative output can often be traced not to the form with
which compositional analysis associates it, but rather to some other element
of linguistic or extralinguistic context.  A compositional analysis may build
into the meaning of a form all sorts of communicative effects for which that
form is actually not responsible at all.
     The instrumental view, in contrast, recognizes that not everything commu-
nicated with language is encoded linguistically; that people use their infer-
ential powers to jump to conclusions on the basis of a relatively small amount
of actually encoded linguistic information.  Diver thus saw the effects of hu-
man intelligence as pervasive in the functioning of language, and speakers'
use of linguistic meanings as comparable to other kinds of human tool use.
This led to the distinguishing of two different kinds or levels of function:
the _meaning_ of a form--that sparse element which the form encodes and con-
sistently contributes to the communicative process, and the _message_--the
totality of communicative effects which may at one time or another be asso-
ciated with the occurrence of a form, but which is actually the resultant of
human inference operating with many different kinds of input, both linguistic
and non-linguistic.
     Grammatical analysis thus becomes a search for that which languages ac-
tually encode, these sparse, hint-like meanings.  In this enterprise, then,
meaning is not something studied in the abstract, without reference to a par-
ticular language; meaning is rather a device of explanation, invoked to ac-
count for facts of morphemic distribution in individual languages.
     In Diver's own words:

     "The general picture of human language is that of a particular kind of
     instrument of communication, an imprecise code by means of which precise
     messages can be transmitted through the exercise of human ingenuity.  The
     code and the ingenuity must be kept clearly separate; most of the diffi-
     culties encountered in the various schools of linguistic analysis result,
     simply, from the attempt to build the ingenuity into the structure of
     language itself."

Diver liked to give his own twist to the well-known analogy of Sapir, saying:
"Language is only powerful enough to run a light bulb; but we use it to run an
     By pursuing this view of language as being driven by meaning and by ordi-
nary human behavioral and perceptual characteristics, Diver and his students
were able to develop explanations not only for those parts of language which
have traditionally been regarded as basically semantic--verb tenses, demon-
stratives, aspect, etc.-- but also for those that have always been seen as
lying within the central core of syntax, such as government, concord, and or-
dering phenomena.  He took particular issue with the attempts of descriptivism
and generativism to see language as having an autonomous structure that can be
described algorithmically.  Analyses of a great variety of languages have been
carried out in the framework Diver innovated.
     Thus, for Latin and Greek, discarding notions of sentence structure and
syntactic government, and taking occurrences of case morphology themselves as
the data to be explained, Diver found that these cases, for one thing, have to
do with communicating the degree of control exercised by participants over
events.  Similarly, he analyzed subjunctive morphologies in these languages as
indicating particular levels of the probability of occurrence of the event de-
noted by their attached lexical item; other forms turned out to have to do
with attracting greater or lesser degrees of attention to an associated item.
He posited that word order in English can function as the signal of a meaning,
like the morphological signals of Latin and Greek.  Moreover, he and his stud-
ents discovered that the meanings attached to these signals often organize
themselves into closed systems in which the meanings exhaustively divide up a
semantic substance.  So, for instance, the Latin cases denote _relative_ de-
grees of control over an event, in the order (from highest to lowest) nomina-
tive, ablative, dative, accusative.
     4)  In phonology, Diver was concerned with explaining the shape of the
sound wave of speech below the level of the signal, that is, the nonrandom
distribution of distinctive units of sound within a language's lexical and
grammatical morphemes.  He accounted for these skewings in part by appealing
to facts of articulatory and acoustic phonetics, some of which had gone neg-
lected in previous phonological research, which, indeed has minimized the role
of phonetics to begin with.  But the theoretical significance of Diverian pho-
nology is more profound, for complete explanation of this non-randomness has
required an appeal to the same principles of communication and human behavior
which underlie grammar, two external orientations that had not previously
played so explicit a role in phonological theory.  Diver, then, proposed a
non-autonomous phonology, just as he proposed a non-autonomous, non-modular
     The communicative factor requires speakers to maintain distinctions among
sounds; yet speakers show a tendency, here as in other aspects of human behav-
ior, to economize effort.  Diverian phonology, as it studies both the frequen-
cies of phonological units and the ways in which they combine, gives evidence
of the dynamic interplay of these competing pressures.
     The following is one of Diver's examples.  It is well known that in many
languages, such as German and Russian, final stops are voiceless.  In English,
although the skewing is not absolute, voiceless stops in word-final position
heavily outweigh voiced stops.  English is thus merely a less extreme example
of what is found in German and Russian; the difference of a few percentage
points is not important since one explanation covers both situations.  Diver
proposed that it is the task of coordinating two active articulators (the
tongue or lips which create the stop, and the vocal folds which provide voic-
ing) that accounts for the lower frequency of voiced stops as compared to
voiceless, where only one of these articulators has to be controlled.  Howev-
er, the beginning of the word, where the hearer does not yet know the identity
of the word, bears a greater communicative burden than the end of the word,
which the speaker will likely be able to figure out for himself once it is
reached (cf. people's tendency to chime in at the ends of words).  This exam-
ple shows the interplay of factors: the communicative factor motivates the
greater distinctiveness afforded by having both voiced and unvoiced stops; but
the human factor--ordinary laziness--carries the day when one can get away
with less distinctiveness.
     5)  In following this route, Diver developed an epistemology intended to
bring the practice of linguistics into line with that of other attempts to un-
derstand natural phenomena in the scientific era.  For Diver, explanation was
not a matter of simply demonstrating that a particular item is a member of a
more general class; he wanted to get at the "Why" of things.  This meant seek-
ing motivations for observations one does not understand in terms of areas of
knowledge one does understand, not embarking on a speculative program.  It
meant adhering to highly demanding standards of validation and fit between hy-
pothesis and data.  Diverian analyses are heavily textually oriented; large
quantities of data from actual texts and extensive use of counts are their
hallmarks.  Diver was very skeptical of a-prioristic schemes, such as univer-
sal grammar.  He insisted that theory be always guided by analysis, not the
other way around, no matter how unfamiliar the resulting theory might appear.

     These ideas evolved into a comprehensive framework for linguistic analy-
sis that was sometimes called "Form-Content" in the '60's and '70's and ma-
tured into the "Columbia School of Linguistics" in the '80's and '90's.  This
approach is of course quite the opposite of contemporary mainstream linguistic
thought, and thus did not get much press.  Diver was a man far ahead of his
time; in a world obsessed with modularity and syntax, it is a rare voice which
asserts that language is an instance of ordinary human behavior, and that lin-
guistic structure can and must be understood without reference to syntax.
Nonetheless, a great many in-depth analyses of a wide range of languages by
Diver and his students have borne him out, and the scholarly mechanism he es-
tablished has quietly pursued its work, with little public fanfare.  From
1975, Diver edited the Columbia University Working Papers in Linguistics, in
which many of his own writings appeared.  He gave invited lecture series in
numerous countries of Europe and Asia, in addition to speaking at conferences
in the USA and Canada.  The Columbia School has held biennial international
conferences since 1989 at Columbia, the University of Virginia and Rutgers,
and a Summer Institute of the Columbia School will be held in NYC in 1996.
Even after his retirement to Emeritus status in 1989, Diver remained an active
participant in an ongoing Linguistics Seminar at Columbia and in the Conferen-
ces, giving generously of his time, and continuing to attract new adherents
through his writings and lectures.
     Linguists who received the Ph.D. at Columbia under Diver's advisorship
include Erica Garcia, Robert Kirsner, Flora Klein, David Zubin, Wallis Reid,
Abdul Azim, John Penhallurick, Robert Leonard, Ellen Contini-Morava, Anita de
la Garza, Alan Huffman, Bonny Gildin, Radmila Gorup, Barbara Goldberg, and
Joseph Davis.  A dissertation written under Diver's sponsorship received the
Edward Sapir Award in Linguistics from the New York Academy of Sciences in
1985.  Books presenting Columbia School analyses or discussing Columbia School
ideas have been written by Garcia, Kirsner, Reid, Contini-Morava, Gorup,
Huffman, Zubin, and Yishai Tobin; an extensive bibliography of published Col-
umbia School works has been assembled (available from the e-mail address indi-
cated below).
     Early publications of Diver's dealing with Indo-European include the fol-

     "The problem of Old Bulgarian s't", Word 11 (1955).
     "On the prehistory of Greek consonantism", Word 14 (1958).
     "On the diachronic role of the morphological system", Miscelanea Homenaje
     a Andre Martinet (1958).

Publications reflecting the emerging Columbia School position include numerous
articles on topics in the grammars of Latin, Greek, and English in the Colum-
bia University Working Papers in Linguistics series, as well as the following:

     "The system of relevance of the Homeric verb," Acta Linguistica Haf-
     niensia 12, 45-68 (1969).

     "Substance and value in linguistic analysis," in Semiotext(e) 1, 13-30

     "Phonology as human behavior," in D. Aaronson and R. Rieber (eds.)
     Psycholinguistic research: implications and applications.  Hillsdale,
     N.Y.: Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc., pp. 161-182 (1979).

     "Theory," in E. Contini-Morava and B. Goldberg (eds.) Meaning as explana-
     tion: Advances in sign-based linguistics.  Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter

A collection of Diver's papers, essays, and talks in the Columbia School
framework is being prepared for publication by a committee of his former stud-
ents and associates.
     Diver's relations with his students, colleagues and associates were char-
acterized by unlimited generosity, tolerance, and gentlemanliness.  The role
model he exemplified made as profound and lasting an impression on people as
did his ideas.
     A memorial service for William Diver is currently in planning.

               Written by Alan Huffman

               <AAHNY at CUNYVM.CUNY.EDU>

               Deepest thanks to all my colleagues for their contributions and
               suggestions, especially to Joseph, Ellen, and Ricardo

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