How Linguist Barbara Partee Pioneered a Field by Studying What She Loved [MIT Alumni]

August 31, 2020

Dr. Barbara Partee is an MIT alum who was a guest speaker at the precursor event to CBMM - MIT150 Symposia: Brains, Minds and Machines.

by Maria Iacobo

When Barbara Partee PhD ’65 was growing up in Baltimore County, her parents told her she could be anything she wanted. Her dad took it one step further, advising that “if you have some talent, then you have an obligation to do something worthwhile.”

Partee took that advice to heart, and became a pioneer in linguistics—the scientific study of language that has significant impacts on everything from psychology to artificial intelligence. Within linguistics, she is a founder of the field of formal semantics, which applies the tools of logic and linguistics to the study of how the meanings of sentences are composed from the meanings of their parts. The Franklin Institute recently honored Partee with the Benjamin Franklin Medal in Computer and Cognitive Science for “foundational contributions that synthesize insights from linguistics, philosophy, logic, and psychology to understand how words and sentences combine to express meaning in human language.”

Her route was more serendipity than design.

A Swarthmore math major with minors in Russian and philosophy, Partee chose the subjects simply because she liked them. The head of the math department suggested that the subjects might all relate to something he’d heard of called “machine translation or mathematical linguistics.” She found her way to a summer seminar in structural linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania after her junior year, and it was there she learned that Noam Chomsky would be starting a graduate program in linguistics at MIT the following year...

Read the full story on the MIT Alumni site using the link below.