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2.21.06 New chair brings influential linguist to Tufts

by Mark Sullivan

He's one of the world's great theoretical linguists, mentioned just after Noam Chomsky as a major figure in the field. His latest book is a groundbreaking work on the structure of language. And now he calls Tufts home.

With Ray Jackendoff's appointment as the Seth Merrin Professor, Tufts welcomes a leading cognitive theorist to its philosophy faculty and enhances its growing eminence in the study of the human mind.

The noted linguist assumes the chair endowed by Trustee Emeritus Edward Merrin, A50, and his wife, Vivian, who gave $3 million for a professorship in the School of Arts and Sciences in honor of their son, Trustee Seth Merrin, A82.

At the same time, Jackendoff joins University Professor Daniel Dennett, prominent philosopher of the mind, as co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies.

"With both Dennett and Jackendoff, Tufts becomes a powerhouse in cognitive science," said Tufts provost Jamshed Bharucha, himself affiliated with the Center for Cognitive Studies as a psychologist researching cognitive neuroscience and music perception.

Jackendoff comes to Tufts from Brandeis University, where he taught for 34 years as professor and chairman of linguistics. His 11th book, Simpler Syntax, co-authored with Ohio State linguist Peter Culicover, is just out from Oxford University Press.

"My central interest is the system of meaning, the messages that language conveys and what they tell you about the character of human thought," Jackendoff said. "What is going on in the brain when we use language or understand someone else speaking? How do we learn language, and what does that tell us about the character of the brain? How do children acquire the tool kit of language? Is some of it wired in?"

And why Tufts as his staging area? "The administration is really open, and interested in putting Tufts at the top internationally as a research university," he said. "Anything we can suggest to help do that, they're interested in. That's very exciting to me."