Dr. Lila R. Gleitman died peacefully at Paoli Hospital on August 8th, 2021 after a brief illness. Dr. Gleitman was Professor Emerita in the Psychology Department at the University of Pennsylvania. She was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a towering figure in the fields of cognitive science, linguistics and psychology.

Gleitman was born in Brooklyn, NY, in 1929 and she was a proud graduate of the James Madison High School in Sheepshead Bay. She attended Antioch College as an undergraduate and, after several twists and turns (including a brief stint as a “Gal Friday” for the Journal of the American Water Works Association, considered perfectly appropriate employment for a female college graduate at the time), she entered graduate school in linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania. She was a student of Zellig Harris and earned her PhD in 1967. She began her academic career as an assistant professor at Swarthmore College before becoming the William T. Carter Professor of Education at the University of Pennsylvania in 1972. She subsequently served as Professor of Linguistics and as the Steven and Marcia Roth Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania from 1973 until she retired in 2001. She was also the founding director (with Aravind Joshi) of the Institute for Research in Cognitive Science at the University of Pennsylvania from 1991-2001.

Gleitman’s contributions to the study of language and cognition are renowned. In a career that spanned six decades, she explored questions pertaining to language acquisition in children and adults, such as how children acquire language, how language and thought are related, the nature of concepts, and the role of syntax in shaping the direction of word learning. She has earned particular acclaim for her work showing that children’s keen sensitivity to syntactic structure plays a crucial role in their language acquisition. Gleitman and her collaborators’ theory of syntactic boot-strapping enabled them to address many longstanding mysteries in the field, such as how blind children effortlessly acquire spoken language (including such words as “look” and “see,” and color terms), and how deaf isolates invent sign language without exposure to any language at all.

In addition to being a member of the NAS, Gleitman was an elected Fellow of the American Psychological Association, the Association for Psychological Science, the Society of Experimental Psychologists, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She was a recipient of the American Psychological Association Distinguished Scientist Award, the American Association for the Advancement of Science John McGovern Award in the Behavioral Sciences, the Prix Internationale award from the Fyssen Foundation, and the David Rumelhart Prize from the Cognitive Science Society, among many others. She served as President of the Language Development Society, the Society for Philosophy and Psychology, and the Linguistic Society of America. Her publications include Phrase and Paraphrase (1970, with Henry Gleitman), Language Acquisition: The State of the Art (1982), Language and experience: Evidence from the blind child (1985, with Barbara Landau), and Sentence First, Arguments Afterward: Essays in Language and Learning (2020).

Gleitman touched the lives of innumerable people with her razor-sharp wit, her piercing intelligence, and her fierce commitment to getting to the bottom of things. Her students included some of the great luminaries in the fields of cognitive science, psychology and linguistics. Years after completing their graduate work, numerous former students remained her close collaborators. Many others remained regularly in touch with her, as she took a lifelong interest in their research, their children, the paths their lives took. Her devotion to students and colleagues was unparalleled. Some of these long-lasting connections were forged in the famous Cheese Seminar (so named in honor of the refreshments served), a weekly evening seminar held in the Gleitman household, and co-hosted with her husband, the late Dr. Henry Gleitman, Professor Emeritus at the time of his death at the University of Pennsylvania. This seminar, too, was legendary.

The joyfulness with which she pursued science and all aspects of her life and work inspired everyone who knew her. To her final days, Gleitman was vitally engaged both by her ongoing research and by the people in her life. She adored playing bridge with her daughter Ellen Luchette, with whom she competed in national tournaments. Her final publication (to appear in the Annual Review of Psychology this winter) was an intellectual autobiography, written in collaboration with her daughter Claire Gleitman—a true labor of love for both of them. In addition to her two adored daughters, Gleitman is survived by her beloved sons-in-law, Mark Luchette and David DeVries; her cherished grandchildren, Zachary and Zoe Luchette, and Philip and Lucas DeVries; and the countless students who will treasure her memory forever.

--- Claire Gleitman, August 10, 2021