Research Biography of Ray Jackendoff

Ray JackendoffDr. Ray Jackendoff is one of the world’s leading figures in the cognitive science of language. He has developed a theory of language that articulates the contribution of each level of linguistic representation and their interaction, while also elucidating how language relates to other cognitive systems. While working broadly within the generative paradigm in linguistics, the cornerstone of Jackendoff’s research has been the human conceptual system. His central contributions to the study of language fall into two areas: the development of a theory of conceptual semantics, and an architecture of the language system designed to express conceptual meaning. In addition, he has developed (with Fred Lerdahl) one of the most influential theories of music cognition, in his book “A Generative Theory of Tonal Music”.

Within his account of conceptual semantics, Jackendoff has examined the conceptualization of space, the relationship between language, perception, and consciousness, and, most recently, on socially grounded concepts such as value, morality, fairness, and obligations. His approach not only provides a framework for the theory of meaning, which naturally integrates with linguistics, philosophy of language, and cognitive science, but also develops the formal machinery needed to instantiate this framework. The theory specifies the mental representations underlying communicative intentions, seamlessly incorporating pragmatics and world knowledge. Diverging from the syntax-focused view of much generative linguistics, Jackendoff’s approach shares much with Cognitive Grammar in postulating a powerful, generative conceptual system, in which semantic units such as objects, events, times, properties, and quantifiers, need not correspond one-to-one with syntactic categories.

Jackendoff’s Conceptual Semantics framework led naturally to the development of a characterization of the human language faculty that is expressly designed to explain the means by which concepts are expressed in language. In his book Foundations of Language: Brain, Meaning, Language, Evolution he outlines a parallel architecture for linguistic representation and processing. He argues that phonology, syntax, and semantics constitute independent generative components in language, each with its own primitives and combinatorial systems. In contrast with traditional generative approaches, these three “tiers” are not derived from syntax, but are rather correlated with each other by interface rules that establish correspondence between each pair of tiers. An important consequence of distributing the generative capacity across the three tiers, is that it clarifies how syntax can be seen as being primarily in service of mapping from semantic to phonology. Building on these ideas, Jackendoff develops this account more fully in his book “Simpler Syntax” (together with Peter Culicover), which reexamines the explanatory balance between syntax and semantics, structure and derivation, and rule systems and lexicon. In addition to being motivated by linguistic considerations, Jackendoff’s proposals also draw on theory and evidence from cognitive psychology, the neurosciences, and evolutionary biology, in examining fundamental issues such as innateness, the relationship between language and perception, and the evolution of the language faculty.

Ray Jackendoff is Seth Merrin Professor of Philosophy and Co-Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. After receiving his BA in Mathematics from Swarthmore College in 1965, he completed his PhD in Linguistics from MIT in 1969, under the supervision of Noam Chomsky. He then joined the faculty at Brandeis University, where he remained until 2005, until taking up his current position at Tufts. Jackendoff is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, of the Linguistic Society of America, and of the Cognitive Science Society. He has held fellowships at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences and at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, and has been a member of the External Faculty of the Santa Fe Institute. He has been President of both the Linguistic Society of America and the Society for Philosophy and Psychology, and was recipient of the 2003 Jean Nicod Prize in Cognitive Philosophy. He has been awarded five honorary degrees, the most recent in 2013 from Tel Aviv University.

Selected Publications

1, Semantic Interpretation in Generative Grammar, MIT Press, 1972.

2. X-Bar Syntax: A Study of Phrase Structure, MIT Press, 1977.

3. A Generative Theory of Tonal Music (with Fred Lerdahl), MIT Press, 1982.

4. Semantics and Cognition, MIT Press, 1983.

5. Consciousness and the Computational Mind, Bradford/MIT Press, 1987.

6. Semantic Structures, MIT Press, 1990.

7. The Architecture of the Language Faculty, MIT Press, 1997.

8. Foundations of Language: Brain, Meaning, Grammar, Evolution, Oxford University Press, 2002.

9. Simpler Syntax (with Peter Culicover), Oxford University Press, 2005.

10. Language, Consciousness, Culture: Essays on Mental Structure, MIT Press, 2007.

11. A User’s Guide to Thought and Meaning, Oxford University Press, 2012.