Lila Gleitman, whose pioneering work in linguistics and cognitive science broadened our understanding of how language works and how children learn it, died on August 8 in a Philadelphia hospital. She was 91.
Her daughter Claire Gleitman said the cause was a heart attack.
Until the 1970s, most linguists believed that the structure of language existed in the world and that the human brain then learned it from childhood. Building on the work of her friend Noam Chomsky, Dr. Glide the opposite: that the structures resp.
“Research into language acquisition, her main scientific concern, was her specialty in a special sense: She created the subject in its modern form virtually and has developed it impressively since then,” said Dr. Chomsky in a statement.
The theory was proposed by Dr. Chomsky, who like Dr. Gleitman received his PhD from the University of Pennsylvania. But it was Dr. Gleitman who found elegant ways to test it in the real world, starting with her own children.
She loved to tell a story about her daughter Claire, then 2 years old. One day while she was driving and Claire was in the car, Dr. Gleitman abruptly and said: “Hold on tight.” Her daughter answered immediately: “Isn’t that tight?” The utterance showed how even a toddler could understand nuances of language without being taught to them.
Dr. Gleitman called the process “syntactic bootstrapping” – the use of an innate understanding of linguistic structure and its relationship to meaning to find new words.
“The child really does partially discover what they know from a complex code in which language is hidden,” she said in a 2013 interview.
Dr. Gleitman often worked with her husband, psychologist Harry Gleitman, or with her PhD students, many of whom would later become leading linguists themselves.
With Susan Goldin-Meadow, now at the University of Chicago, she showed how even blind children could learn “seeing” words like “look” and “see” – not by experiencing them in the world, but by understanding their meaning from them opened up their syntactic and semantic context. She did similar research on deaf students with another former student, Barbara Landau, who teaches at Johns Hopkins University.
“She believed that language learning was not just the accumulation of facts over time, but that it was part of our being as humans,” said Dr. Goldin-Meadow in an interview.
Lila Ruth Lichtenberg was born on December 10, 1929 in the Sheepshead Bay neighborhood of Brooklyn. Her father Ben was a civil engineer, her mother Fanny (Segal) Lichtenberg a housewife.
Lila attended James Madison High School, which educated generations of the county’s Jews, including Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Senators Chuck Schumer and Bernie Sanders, economist Gary Becker, and Judith Sheindlin, better known as TV judge Judy.
She graduated from Antioch College, Ohio, with a degree in literature in 1952 and moved to New York where she accepted a position as an editorial assistant with the Journal of the American Water Works Association. A few years later she married Eugene Galanter, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and moved to Philadelphia. This marriage ended in divorce.
She married Dr. Gleitman, then a professor at Swarthmore College. He died in 2015. She and her daughter Claire left behind another daughter, Ellen Luchette, and four grandchildren.
As a lecturer, Dr. Gleitman take free courses and immerse yourself in the classics. But she found her studies boring, except for Greek and Latin.
She did her PhD in linguistics and studied with Zellig Harris, himself a pioneer in computer-aided exploration of language, and analyzed its deep structures and logic. She also accepted a position at the Eastern Pennsylvania Psychiatric Institute, where part of her job was writing entries related to psychology for the next edition of Webster’s Dictionary – including one for a crude term for sexual intercourse never seen before Book was published.
“I have always considered it my greatest achievement in life,” she said in a 2017 interview with Dr. Goldin-Meadow.
Although she is one of Dr. Harris became increasingly aware of the work of one of his leading acolytes, Dr. Chomsky, dressed, who just had a fundamental break with his mentor.
Human language is not something that exists apart from the human mind, he argued; rather it was innate, hard-wired, already there at birth. Dr. Gleitman agreed and also broke up with Dr. Harris – a split so bitter that he refused to oversee her dissertation.
Even so, Dr. Gleitman received his PhD in 1967 and began teaching at Swarthmore. In 1972 she returned to the University of Pennsylvania, where she stayed until her retirement in 2002.
However, she did not stop working. In fact, the last two decades of her life have been some of their most intellectually fertile ones.
Working with a colleague, John Trueswell, she first studied how children learn “hard” words – verbs, conceptual nouns – and then turned around to see how they learn specific nouns and other “simple” words that are theirs Were not as simple as they might seem.
Dr. Gleitman has continued to produce new works in recent years after she was nearly blind from macular degeneration. Dr. Trueswell said the last email he received from her arrived the day before she died. It was a quick note informing him of her latest work – which she had just submitted for publication.