In Memoriam: Emerita Distinguished Professor of Linguistics Janet Dean Fodor

September 8, 2023

The Graduate Center community mourns the death of an influential psycholinguist and cherished teacher, mentor, and friend.

Janet Dean Fodor headshot
Janet Dean Fodor

The Graduate Center community is deeply saddened by the passing of Distinguished Professor Emerita Janet Dean Fodor (Linguistics), a prominent psycholinguist and revered teacher and mentor. She died on August 28.

Fodor joined the Graduate Center faculty from the University of Connecticut in 1986 as a distinguished professor of Linguistics and became a professor emerita upon her retirement in 2020.

“Janet has made numerous important contributions to the field of psycholinguistics,” wrote Lyn Frazier and Edward Gibson in their introduction to a volume of papers published in Fodor’s honor in 2015, Explicit and Implicit Prosody in Sentence Processing.

Fodor’s research interests spanned human sentence processing, learnability theory, first-language acquisition, and prosody — the pitch, volume, and rhythm of speech and how these contribute to meaning.

In 1988, Fodor and the late David Swinney co-founded the CUNY Conference on Human Sentence Processing (now the Conference on Human Sentence Processing), which is currently in its 37th year and has been hosted at schools across the U.S.

“It is difficult to exaggerate the role that this conference has had on organizing the field of psycholinguistics as a community involving linguists, psychologists, and computer scientists,” Frazier and Gibson wrote. “It would not be an overstatement to claim that this community exists largely because of Janet, her vision, and her sustained efforts to make that vision a reality.”

Starting in the late 1970s, Fodor developed a program of psycholinguistics research that focused on the psychological mechanisms by which people understand the sentences they read or hear. She collaborated with students to conduct experimental research on their native languages: Arabic, Bulgarian, Chinese, Croatian, Hebrew, Japanese, Russian, and Turkish, among others. Many of the studies focused on the role of prosody in language comprehension, including the “implicit prosody” that is mentally projected in silent reading.

Fodor also conducted research on language learnability theory, including model development and computer simulation studies of children’s acquisition of syntax, in collaboration with colleagues in computer science.

During her years at the University of Connecticut and her tenure at the Graduate Center, she supervised over 25 doctoral dissertations and several master’s theses.

“Janet was a huge part of my linguistics academic career,” wrote alumna Tally Callahan (Ph.D. ’18, Linguistics), one of Fodor’s advisees, in an online tribute. “I learned so much about designing thorough experiments and stimuli that I still use to this day. I will always have Janet in the back of my head when I write a paper. She always pushed herself and her students to be the very best they could be and to always ask questions, but always from a place of immense kindness.”

“Janet was a delight to work with,” wrote alumna Ashley Thorne (M.A. ’14, Linguistics), another advisee, in an online tribute. “Always classy, always kind. She had both high standards and the patience to explain to someone like me who was new to the field, which was a blessing to have in an advisor. I also appreciated her sense of humor throughout our time working together. I’m so grateful for her generosity and time.”

Among Fodor’s many publications is her highly respected and still widely used Semantics: Theories of Meaning in Generative Grammar. Her 1979 monograph, The Linguistic Description of Opaque Contexts, was republished in 2013 by Routledge as part of a new series of classic works in linguistics.

She was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship in 1992 and served one term as president of the Linguistic Society of America from 1997 to 1998. In 2014, she became a corresponding fellow of the British Academy. In 2017, she was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Paris Diderot.

She received a B.A. and an M.A. from Oxford University and a Ph.D. in linguistics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Members of the Graduate Center community who knew Fodor are invited to share their memories of her on this website. A memorial is being planned for January 2024.

“On behalf of the Linguistics program, I extend my most heartfelt condolences to her family, friends, colleagues, and students,” wrote Professor Cecelia Cutler (GC/Lehman, Linguistics; Latin American, Iberian, and Latino Cultures), executive officer of the Ph.D. Program in Linguistics.

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