MIT professors Kai von Fintel and Sabine Iatridou have been named fellows of the Linguistics Society of America (LSA) — the highest honor in the field — in recognition of their distinguished contributions to the discipline.
The LSA fellowship has previously been awarded to many of the field’s luminaries, including MIT’s Noam Chomsky, Morris Halle, David Pesetsky, Donca Steriade, and Irene Heim.
“I am so proud of my department and my colleagues,” said Pesetsky, current head of the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy. “For two members of MIT’s Linguistics faculty to be elected this year is really spectacular.”
The outsized influence of MIT Linguistics
MIT faculty and alumni are extraordinarily well represented in the list of LSA fellows — constituting about a third of the total — reflecting the outsized influence of the MIT Linguistics community on the field at large.
Founded in 1961, the Graduate Program in Linguistics at MIT quickly became a leading center for research on formal models of human-language phonology, morphology, and syntax. Today, MIT graduates can be found in many of the leading linguistics departments in the world, providing much of the intellectual community that defines contemporary linguistics.
Kai von Fintel
The former associate dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, and the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Linguistics, von Fintel is the co-founder of Semantics and Pragmatics, one of the first fully open-access, web-based journals in linguistics. A longtime advocate of open-access publishing, he has made numerous contributions to the formal analysis of meaning.
"I was overwhelmed by the news of this honor,” von Fintel said. “It means a lot to me that the Linguistic Society values my contributions to the discipline. I am especially happy that my frequent collaborator Sabine Iatridou and I are being inducted at the same time.”
Von Fintel is particularly well-known for his groundbreaking work on quantificational domain restriction and presupposition accommodation. Professor David Pesetsky explains the terms: "Quantificational domain restriction explains why 'Everyone loves physics' can be true at MIT, even when a reasonable number of foolish people don't. Presupposition accommodation is the complex process that allows us to say things like 'I am sorry that I am late. I had to take my daughter to the doctor' out of the blue (without having to first explain that I have a daughter and that there are doctors in the world) — while an out-of-the-blue utterance like 'the armadillo has arrived' will provoke a very different reaction ("What armadillo? — you haven't mentioned any armadillo.)"
For many years, von Fintel and Iatridou have worked together on linguistic research questions. Most recently, the pair jointly wrote "A modest proposal for the meaning of imperatives," which is slated to appear in "Modality Across Syntactic Categories" (Oxford University Press). The paper explores the use of imperatives to signal acquiescence and their use in conditional conjunctions.
Iatridou focuses her research on syntax, morphology, and semantics, and von Fintel works in semantics, pragmatics, and philosophy of language. “I am terribly pleased and humbled to be named an LSA fellow,” said Iatridou, “and I am beyond thrilled that my colleague and co-author Kai von Fintel was elected as an LSA fellow at the same time as I was. Our collaboration is extremely valuable and enjoyable to me. Although it is officially described as a recognition of contributions to the field, nobody's achievements are ‘individual’ in a place like MIT, where you can just walk down the hall and learn from terrific colleagues and students.”
Iatridou, who has served as director of the MIT Linguistics PhD program for many years, became famous two decades ago as the author and co-author of a series of innovative papers about tense and modality that opened up whole new domains of research for the field. She has since made foundational contributions to many branches of linguistics that connect form with meaning.
“Sabine is also world-renowned as an inspiring lecturer and a relentlessly dedicated advisor and classroom teacher — one of the best we have at MIT or anywhere,” Pesetsky said.
Iatridou and von Fintel will be inducted officially as fellows at the LSA’s annual meeting, which will take place this coming January in Washington.
Story prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
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