Martin Kay, computer linguistics pioneer, Verbmobil advisor, machine translation expert

It was with great sadness that we learned of the death of a pioneer and intellectual trailblazer in computational linguistics, who had close ties to Saarland University and the Saarbrücken site of the DFKI. For several decades, Prof. Martin Kay had played a formative role in the development of computational linguistics, an interdiscipline that in large part belongs to artificial intelligence, but in other parts also to modern linguistics. Throughout his life, he himself was a scientist whose research results enjoyed great recognition in both computer science and linguistics.

Martin Kay had studied ancient languages and linguistics at Cambridge, where he also encountered early attempts in computer science to use computers for language analysis and automatic translation. He worked on machine language processing at the Cambridge Language Research Unit as an undergraduate and then after graduation. His next stop was the RAND Corporation, one of the major think tanks in U.S. research. In 1972, he became a college professor and chair of the Department of Computer Science at the University of California at Irvine. In 1974, he was appointed as a Research Fellow at the prestigious Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) of the XEROX Corporation. Since 1985, he has been on a 50% leave of absence from his work at PARC to simultaneously teach as a professor of linguistics at Stanford University.

In addition to his Stanford professorship, Martin Kay also served as an honorary professor at Saarland University for twelve years (2002-2014). Each year he held one or two lectures in Saarbrücken, which were very popular with our students. During his stays, he also advised us on research and participated in the integration of linguistics computational linguistics and translation studies through lectures and in discussion meetings.
Martin Kay invented the concept of chart parsing, a class of algorithms for efficient syntactic analysis. He developed the Functional Unification Grammar, the first grammar model in the family of unification grammars, which were very popular in the 1980s and 1990s and still play a role in linguistics. He is one of the creators of Finite State Morphology, which influenced language processing but also morphology in theoretical linguistics. In his article "The Proper Place of Men and Machines in Language Translation," which had been circulating in the research community for a long time before appearing in Machine Translation as recently as 1997, he sketched out the basic ideas for integrating automatic translation into the human translation process.

Martin Kay is a past president of the Association of Computational Linguistics (ACL) and the International Committee for Computational Linguistics (ICCL). In 2005, he was honored with the ACL Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1982 he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Gothenburg and in 2008 from the University of Geneva.

Kay advised research organizations and projects in several countries. He was an expert advisor to the BMBF and reviewer of the two largest European projects in automatic translation EUROTRA and VERBMOBIL and a valued advisor to our DFKI projects.

His quiet and unassuming demeanor was only in apparent contrast to his recognized abilities as an intellectual leader. His immense expertise from multiple disciplines and his wide-ranging intellectual interests made him a wonderful conversationalist for those colleagues and friends who were fortunate enough to spend time with him.  To all students and colleagues, however, he is remembered as a gifted speaker who could captivate and persuade his audiences with excellent didacticism, rhetorical acuity, and a humor all his own.

We have missed Martin Kay for several years now, since he had retired to devote his time fully to his ailing wife, who died already at the end of last year. Now, after his death on August 8, 2021, this painful loss is joined by the sadness of irreversibility.

Prof. Dr. Hans Uszkoreit

for Universität des Saarlandes and DFKI


Obituary of ACL for Martin Kay:


Martin Kay, "Language, Translation and Robotics". theMETAnk. June 4/5, 2010. Berlin, Germany, brainstorming meeting organized by META-Net & DFKI. Hier das Video der Keynote:

Martin Kay, "A Life of Language“, Acceptance Speech, ACL Lifetime Achievement Award, 2005, Association for Computational Linguistics. Hier als PDF:
Laudatio by Mark Johnson:


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Martin Kay 1935-2021

Martin Kay, Verbmobil Symposium, 30. Juli 2000, Saarbrücken, Photo: DFKI


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Deutsches Forschungszentrum für Künstliche Intelligenz