Laura Benua, 1962-2013

I’m very sad to report that Laura Benua has died, just over a week ago, at her home in Nyack, NY. She was just 50 years old. Laura received her PhD in Linguistics at UMass, under the direction of John McCarthy, in 1997. She held a faculty position in Linguistics at the University of Maryland for a few years, then left the field to become a teacher in NYC. A memorial page has been established here, by the funeral home where a service will be held tomorrow afternoon (Saturday, March 2).

Laura was part of the first cohort of students at UMass trained in Optimality Theory, a cohort that included John Alderete, Jill Beckman, Amalia Gnanadesikan, and Su Urbanczyk. Her dissertation, Transderivational Identity: Phonological Relations Between Words (available on ROA; also published in the Outstanding Dissertations in Linguistics series in 2000), was quite probably the most-cited of a range of works that appeared around the same time on the topic of phonology-morphology interleaving; this is saying a lot, given the very good company that Laura was in: Luigi Burzio, Sharon Inkelas, René Kager, Michael Kenstowicz, and Orhan Orgun were among the other authors with (also widely-cited) works on this topic. “Output-output faithfulness” is probably the most recognizable term referring to the main types of devices used in the relevant set of proposals; this is the term that Laura used in her work for the specific devices she used.

I was fortunate to have been good friends with Laura — ‘pals’, as she would call it — around the time that she was writing her dissertation. We talked endlessly about her project, especially about the interesting consequences of some of her proposals. The case that sticks out in my mind is the “aggressive closure” result discussed starting on p. 200 (section 5.4) of the ROA version of the dissertation. In the immediately preceding section, Laura proposes the following ranking to account for the disposition of syllable-final /mn/ clusters in English.

*mn]σ, OO2-DEP >> IO-MAX >> OO1-DEP

The ranking *mn]σ >> IO-MAX accounts for the fact that the /mn/ cluster in e.g. condemn is simplified to [m]. The IO-MAX >> OO1-DEP ranking is in turn responsible for the fact that cluster simplification does not overapply under Level 1 suffixation: condemnation has [mn] because it is more important to realize input segments than it is to not realize segments that are not present in the base of Level 1 affixation. But the OO2-DEP >> IO-MAX ranking is responsible for the fact that cluster simplification does overapply under Level 2 suffixation: condemning has [m] because it is more important to not realize segments that are not present in the base of Level 2 affixation than it is to realize input segments.

In an extended conversation we had about this one day, Laura and I discovered that the OO2-DEP >> IO-MAX >> OO1-DEP ranking is also implicated in an account of the fact that Level 1 affixes but not Level 2 affixes attach to bound roots (electr-ic but *electr-ness). The argument goes like this: stipulate a constraint BoundRoot that rules out the expression of unaffixed bound roots; this constraint must outrank IO-MAX to cause deletion of all segments of an unaffixed bound root. Because IO-MAX >> OO1-DEP, the effect of BoundRoot does not carry over to bound roots affixed with Level 1 affixes: again, it is more important to realize input segments than it is to not realize segments that are not present in the base of Level 1 affixation. But the OO2-DEP >> IO-MAX ranking is responsible for the fact that deletion of all bound root segments does overapply under Level 2 affixation: again, because it is more important to not realize segments that are not present in the base of Level 2 affixation than it is to realize input segments.

Laura graciously provides a footnote in this section thanking me for “making this clear” to her, but I remember the conversation very differently: we took turns following the logic of the analysis of cluster simplification that she had already come up with and it happened to be my turn when that logic led us to the analysis of bound roots.

I ended up making heavy use of Laura’s theory in my own dissertation, where I analyzed stem-control effects in vowel harmony in terms of OO-faithfulness constraints. I called them “stem-affixed form faithfulness” constraints in order to make clear the “priority of the stem” (or “priority of the base (of affixation)”) effect that Laura discussed at length in her work. Laura technically implemented this effect by imposing a recursive evaluation structure (see section 2.3 of her dissertation, starting on p. 33): every base of affixation is evaluated by a strictly higher-ranked copy of the overall hierarchy, which is the same from copy to copy (although whether a given family of OO-faithfulness constraints is active depends on what’s being evaluated). I argued at length with Laura about whether there is any difference between recursive evaluation and serial evaluation; I maintained that there isn’t (and this is reflected in my work), and she maintained that there is. I won’t rehearse the arguments here, but let’s just say that neither of us had any actual empirical evidence either way, only theoretical convictions. In other words, these were fun arguments to have because they felt very meaningful to us but were relatively inconsequential.

Laura was by any measure a successful graduate: she interviewed for several jobs, well before she had completed the dissertation, and was offered one of them — much more than I could have hoped for from my perspective a couple years behind her. But I also know that she had a healthy dose of imposter syndrome, the kind of thing that I think we all feel at various points in our careers, but in her case it seemed more profound, like she’d stumbled into linguistics/academia on accident and would stumble out of it whenever she felt like it wasn’t working for her. And that’s exactly what she did.

I deeply regret that I didn’t keep up with Laura after she left linguistics. Our friendship was primarily built around the circumstances of being linguistics graduate students at the same time, living parallel lives at UMass and Rutgers, but then we followed separate paths and our friendship was unmoored. Linda Lombardi expressed her feelings when I shared the sad news with her this way: “I felt like I was a part of her life she probably didn’t want to be reminded of.” I pretty much felt the same way.

Aside from the linguistics, I remember Laura as a warm, friendly (if a bit shy at times), and caring human being. When she laughed, you could be sure that something was funny, and it was infectious. I also knew Laura to be (purposely) boorish, and as a boorish person myself (occasionally? purposely?), I mean that in a good way. Bruce Morén-Duolljá shared the following, which I think also sums my memories up pretty nicely.

She was definitely cool. She used to curse like a sailor during lectures, walk around barefoot, and make funny faces while listening to us give presentations (including at my dissertation defense). Many good memories both in the classroom and while throwing back shots together. I will always be thankful to her for teaching me to think outside the box and to challenge assumptions. She will be missed, but the good memories will always be there.

Or take a look at this poem, written for Laura over 20 years ago. As the author (Jon Frankel / Buzz Callaway) explains, “Some people might think it’s a little harsh, but I don’t think so. Laura, I will miss you always.” Ditto to that.

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