Janet Dean Fodor, 1997 LSA President

Posted: August 25, 2023

Janet Dean Fodor was born in London on April 12, 1942, the youngest of 3 girls.  She received her bachelor’s degree from Oxford University studying philosophy and psychology; her tutor was Iris Murdoch. She attended Stanford University in psychology for a year, but realized that she wanted to study linguistics, and transferred to MIT, where she received her Ph.D. in 1970.  She spent 13 years on the faculty of the University of Connecticut, where she mentored scholars such as Lyn Frazier. She then moved in 1986 to CUNY Graduate Center and was emerita from 2021.

Fodor’s initial interest in graduate school was semantics; her book The Linguistic Description of Opaque Contexts was based on her doctoral dissertation, supervised by Noam Chomsky. Chomsky famously treated linguistics as a branch of cognitive psychology (he would probably now say it’s a branch of cognitive science).  Fodor took that lesson to heart, as she expanded her research interests into areas of psycholinguistics, including parsing, processing of structures such as doubly- and triply-embedded clauses, and the role of prosody in acquisition and processing. Fodor was a pioneer in arguing for the role of implicit prosody in silent reading.  Notable publications include an article jointly with Lyn Frazier, “The Sausage Machine” (1978) which presented a novel and influential way to examine issues relating to parsing; another important paper dealing with issues of parsing sentences that had been distorted from their underlying form was the 1978 “Parsing strategies and constraints on transformations”.

Another productive area of research resulted in several papers co-authored with William Sakas, which examined models of parameter setting and learnability.  Indeed, the last course in which Fodor was involved was a seminar with Sakas in the spring of 2022.

A major contribution of Fodor to the fields of linguistics and psycholinguistics was her leadership in the establishment of an annual conference on sentence processing. The intent of this conference was to establish a community of linguists, psychologists, and computer scientists interested in sentence processing research. It has been wildly successful, now going into its 36th year. Originally known as the CUNY conference, it has continued under other auspices and has generated a great deal of productive research.

In addition to being a brilliant scholar, Fodor served the field of linguistics in other ways. She was president of the Linguistic Society of America in 1997 and spearheaded an initiative to raise awareness of employment opportunities for linguists outside academia.

Fodor received many fellowships and grants and was awarded an honorary doctorate at the University of Paris Diderot.  She leaves a daughter Kate, a stepson Anthony, and three granddaughters, as well as generations of grateful students and colleagues.

A memorial website celebrating the life and work of Janet Dean Fodor has been established. You are invited to visit it here.

Obituary provided by Susan Fischer (CUNY Graduate Center), with input from Dianne Bradley (CUNY Graduate Center) and Lyn Frazier (University of Massachusettes). An obituary will also be published in Language, as is customary for all LSA presidents, in the months ahead.