Lila R. Gleitman, PhD


Lila R. Gleitman, PhD

In Memory Of… Lila R. Gleitman, PhD

Honoring scientists who have made important and lasting contributions to the sciences of mind, brain, and behavior.

Lila R. Gleitman, PhD (1929-2021)
Professor of Psychology and Linguistics
University of Pennsylvania


Lila R. Gleitman was a Professor of Psychology and Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania. She earned a B.A. in Literature from Antioch College in 1952. As a student of Zelig Harris at the University of Pennsylvania, she received her Ph.D. in Linguistics. She was on the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania beginning in 1972, where she served as the dissertation advisor of numerous luminaries in the psychology of language. Professor Gleitman’s research in language acquisition was recognized by many organizations, and she 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, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the National Academy of Sciences. She was a recipient of the David Rumelhart Prize, and she served as President of the Linguistic Society of America.

Lila Gleitman made numerous longstanding contributions to the study of language and cognition, focusing especially on how children come to acquire their native language.  As Gleitman put it herself, “One of my main interests concerned the architecture and semantic content of the mental lexicon, i.e., the psychological representation of the forms and meanings of words. My second major interest was in how children acquired both the lexicon and the syntactic structure of the native tongue.”

These contributions to both psychology and linguistics were extensive. She was perhaps best known for her theory of “syntactic bootstrapping” in which she proposed that children inferred the meanings of words via the syntactic contexts within which they appeared. Children’s innate appreciation of syntactic – semantic correspondences, coupled with learned aspects of how syntax was manifested in their native tongue, permitted them to constrain the meanings of lexical items, including especially verbs. Experimental evidence in support of this theory came from her own work, and the work of students and colleagues, who demonstrated that even children as young as 18-20 months of age could infer the meaning of a novel verb from its syntactic use. For example, hearing “John blorked Susan” led toddlers to expect ‘blork’ to have a causal meaning in which one person was acting on another. This bootstrapping process was foundational to language acquisition as it permitted learning of word meanings in the absence of direct perceptual experience with the referent world. Indeed, it allowed her to explain many longstanding puzzles in the field of acquisition, concerning, for example, the near effortless acquisition of spoken language by blind children, and the invention of sign language by deaf children who were not exposed to any language at all.

Individuals Honoring Lila Gleitman:

Sharon Lee Armstrong, La Salle University
Sudha Arunachalam, New York University
Noam Chomsky, University of Arizona
Andrew Connolly, Dartmouth College
Annie Duke
Cynthia Fisher, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Janet Fodor, City University of New York, Graduate Center 
Susan Goldin-Meadow, University of Chicago
John Goldsmith, University of Chicago
Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Temple University
William Labov, University of Pennsylvania
Peggy Li, Harvard University
Jeffrey Lidz, University of Maryland
Carol Miller, The Pennsylvania State University
Toben Mintz, University of Southern California
Letitia Naigles, University of Connecticut
Elissa Newport, Georgetown University
Anna Papafragou, University of Pennsylvania
Barbara H Partee, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Paul Rozin, University of Pennsylvania
Gillian Sankoff, University of Pennsylvania
Robert Seyfarth, University of Pennsylvania
Jesse Snedeker, Harvard University
Elizabeth Spelke, Harvard University
*John Trueswell, University of Pennsylvania
Laura Wagner, Ohio State University
Sandra Waxman, Northwestern University
Charles Yang, University of Pennsylvania
Sandeep Prasada, Hunter College, CUNY


* FABBS would like to thank Dr. John Trueswell and Dr. Rob DeRubeis for nominating Dr. Gleitman for this honor and for leading the effort.


You can also honor Lila R. Gleitman, PhD

It's not too late to have your name added to the list of donors! You can make your donation to this In Honor Of… campaign at anytime.