Lila Gleitman, 1929-2021

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We join scores of friends and colleagues around the world in mourning the passing of Lila R. Gleitman, Professor Emerita of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.

Lila was widely recognized as a brilliant and trailblazing thinker, writer, and teacher, but she was also, famously, a larger than life character with an incomparable wit — “an awful lot of fun to hang around with,” as Ben Zimmer writes. We know how lucky we were to count her as a close family friend, and, in the years since Henry Gleitman’s passing, a regular dinner companion.  We relied on her lifetime of experience and considerable wisdom, and reciprocated any way we could; and we are far from alone in this. She often recounted in her inimitable way aspects of research along with consequential events in the history of linguistics, much of which is included in an article we helped prepare, along with Barbara Partee, for the Annual Review of Linguistics.

She was a student of Zellig Harris and a peer of Noam Chomsky when structuralism was giving way to generative linguistics. From that pivotal moment in history, she became a major catalyst for shifting the study of child language away from its then-stigmatized association with mothers in the private sphere to a place in the academy from which it would illuminate theories of language acquisition, word meaning, and thought itself. Incredibly, she started down the path to this accomplishment in the 1950s as a woman, wife, and mother — one whose determination and confidence were undaunted by obstacles she met along the way. (She would make us strike this paragraph as too much praise if she could.)

It’s fair to say her influence on the fields of language acquisition and developmental psycholinguistics is unmatched. Her students (or collaborators, as she called them from the outset) include such prominent scholars as Elissa Newport, Susan Goldin-Meadow, and Barbara Landau, to name but three of dozens, many of whom have fostered generations of students themselves. With her husband, Henry, who was frequently her collaborator, and eventually with John Trueswell as well, she hosted a regular gathering of scholars in her home ("Cheese") for some five decades. After retiring from Penn, she became a beloved presence in the research community at Rutgers. She was still working on books and papers with several collaborators when she left us at age 91.

It's a testament to her vitality and intellectual acuity that many in her community were looking forward to celebrating her 100th birthday. Losing her has been a shock.

Her collected works, edited with her former postdoc, Jeff Lidz, can be found here. That collection was the basis for a mid-pandemic seminar taught last Fall by John Trueswell over Zoom, attended by Lila herself and by a large collection of students, colleagues, collaborators, including her daughters Ellen Luchette and Claire Gleitman, and us — a rare opportunity and delight that is now a cherished memory.

A lovely and comprehensive obituary has been prepared by Claire Gleitman for the National Academy of Sciences. Social media has been blanketed these last few days with stories and remembrances, and privately we’ve exchanged recollections with some of Lila’s friends and colleagues, including her dear friend in Australia, Anne Cutler. More will be coming in the weeks ahead; we’ll continue adding links. Meanwhile, contributions of memories, stories, and personal reminiscences are welcome in the comments below.

Updates —

Claire Gleitman’s obituary for the National Academy of Sciences (also linked above):

Tributes from the MIT Linguistics Department:

From Lane Greene in The Economist

From the New York Times:

1 Comment

  1. Barbara Lust said,

    August 17, 2021 @ 9:26 am

    Lila's influence on our field was enormous, always confronting the most fundamental issues in the most powerful ways. She established a theoretically and methodologically powerful paradigm in the field, continually enriched by her many students and colleagues who she so inspired. Most important, she was a delight to know and share with, enriching every exchange with both intellectual acuity and wit at once. She will be treasured.

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