Janet Dean Fodor grew up in England. She has a BA in Psychology and Philosophy from Oxford University and a PhD in Linguistics from MIT. Her dissertation, on semantics, was published in 1979 and re-published in 2013. She authored a semantics textbook in 1977.
And then her thoughts turned to sentence parsing: aiming to uncover the psychological mechanisms by which people understand the sentences they hear or read.
In the late 1970s / early 1980s there was little experimental data available, and only a few brave attempts to model syntactic processing. So it was an open field and very exciting. A major focus was on syntactic constructions that were under intense study in theoretical linguistics – constructions in which phrases are moved from one location to another, or are deleted entirely. This is ‘filler-gap’ psycholinguistics, and still thriving.
At much the same time, work with Lyn Frazier, addressing papers by John Kimball, uncovered strong, perhaps universal, biases in the even more basic process of assigning hierarchical structure to linear sequences of words. In work with Atsu Inoue and Yuki Hirose and many fine students since, the linear-to-hierarchical translation in sentence processing has been shown to be sensitive to the lengths of phrases. The phrase length effect in turn has been attributed to prosodic influences on the preferred syntactic structure, even when a sentence is read silently so that any prosodic influence must be due to a prosodic contour that is mentally projected by the reader onto the visually presented sentence. This is what has become known as ‘implicit prosody’.
Moving these ideas forward has been possible over the years thanks to collaborations with gifted graduate students conducting experimental research on languages including Arabic, Bulgarian, Croatian, Hebrew, Japanese, Mandarin, Russian and Turkish, among others. (See Dissertations Supervised page.)
Another research focus, in extensive collaboration with William Sakas, is what is known as ‘language learnability’: developing theoretical models of syntactic parameter setting in child language acquisition, and testing them in computer simulation studies. (For details visit our website at http://www.colag.cs.hunter.cuny.edu/.)
In 1988, Janet and the late David Swinney co-founded the CUNY Conference on Human Sentence Processing, now in its 30th year (thanks to generous hosting by other universities) as the major international forum for theoretically oriented research in psycholinguistics.
Janet is a former president of the Linguistic Society of America, and a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy. In 2017 she was awarded an honorary doctorate (honoris causa) by the University of Paris Diderot.