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  November 20, 2000

Lasnik's Field of Distinction is
the Wonderful World of Words

Language is an incredible human capacity.

That's how Howard Lasnik, professor of linguistics, describes the genesis of his lifelong journey into the world of words. It's a journey that began in 1953 in Pittsburgh, when he taught his sister to write her name so she could get a library card. He was eight and she was three.

"Someone who knows a language - essentially that is every human being more than a few years old - can produce and understand indefinitely many sentences never heard or produced before," says Lasnik. That, he says, is a remarkable capacity.

For the past 30 years, Lasnik has been investigating how that capacity is represented in the human mind and how it arises in the mind. His published research, including six books and dozens of journal articles, has positioned him as an international leader in the field of linguistics.

He has given more than three dozen keynote addresses at major national and international linguistics conferences and made more than 100 invited colloquium presentations at universities worldwide. He also has written material for encyclopedias and has served as a television consultant.

In 1995 when Gene Searchinger produced for the Public Broadcasting System a three-part series on "The Human Language," Lasnik served as consultant and enjoyed an on-camera role as well. He was interviewed about syntax and the acquisition of language.

"The television series conveyed to the public the excitement of investigation into human language," he says.

His enthusiasm and accomplishments as a researcher and a professor earned him selection as one of the first six Board of Trustees Distinguished Professors this spring.

Recognition of Lasnik's teaching and research achievements also came this year in the form of Step by Step: Essays on Minimalist Syntax in Honor of Howard Lasnik, published by the MIT Press, which is considered the top publisher of works on theoretical linguistics.

The new millennium held other special rewards for the UConn professor, too, including a sabbatical at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. The west coast sabbatical, however, didn't prevent him from staying in close contact with his graduate students. He frequently flew east to consult with them on their work.

"My greatest satisfaction comes when one of my students discovers something new," said Lasnik. "I'm constantly learning from my students."

Following the Stanford experience, Lasnik headed to the Far East, where he was the keynote speaker at a conference in Taiwan on "Linguistics in the Next Decade." The conference was sponsored by the Academia Sinica, a top academic institution in the Republic of China.

While in Taiwan, Lasnik also added the National Tsing-Hua University to the impressive list of institutions where he has served as a guest professor. These include the Universities of Texas, Southern California, and Rochester, Warsaw University Linguistic Summer School, the Dutch National Graduate School in Linguistics, and the University of Pennsylvania Institute for Research in Cognitive Science.

Lasnik, who joined the Department of Linguistics in 1972, specializes in theoretical syntax and the formalization of linguistic theories, topics he has explained to thousands of students in the course of his teaching career.

"Two of the major topics I've investigated are called displacement and ellipsis," says Lasnik. "Displacement is the situation where a portion of a sentence is seemingly understood in one position yet pronounced in another.

Lasnik offered the following sentence as an example of displacement: "Who should we select?" Who is the understood direct object of the verb select, he explains, yet it occurs displaced from the normal direct object position. "It has evidently moved from one position to another," he says.

"In ellipsis constructions, a portion of a sentence is deleted - not pronounced at all - but is understood as if it were pronounced," continues Lasnik, offering this example: "Michael will attend the board of trustees meeting, but Howard, unfortunately, won't."

Lasnik explains that the second clause is understood: "Howard, unfortunately, won't attend the board of trustees meeting."

Lasnik's journey to prominence as a linguist began as a high school student at Taylor Allerdice High School in Pittsburgh, but it was mathematics that caught his attention at that stage.

That interest took him in 1963 to the Carnegie Institute of Technology, now the Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Under a Carnegie Foundation grant for the improvement of mathematics education, Lasnik was given a teaching assistant post for freshman calculus. He also authored a monthly column called "Technical Musings," which made topics in logic and mathematics accessible to non-specialists in a style similar, he recalls, to that of Martin Gardner's legendary "Mathematical Games" in Scientific American magazine.

"Partly for this work, I was elected to the Pi Delta Epsilon honorary journalism society," says Lasnik "I became attracted to the study of English literature and took virtually all the courses that Carnegie Tech offered."

Today, Lasnik still recalls the influence three professors at Carnegie had on his life.

"Richard Moore was a terrific math professor and my advisor," he says. "He was a wonderful teacher and human being who gave me lots of encouragement, even when I was shifting toward English literature."

Anne Hayes, an English professor at Carnegie, inspired Lasnik to apply to graduate schools in English, even though he thought he didn't have a chance.

Another female professor at Carnegie, Lois Josephs, who previously taught English at Lasnik's high school, played the key catalyst role.

"She told me I should become a linguist," says Lasnik. "That meant absolutely nothing to me at the time, but it must have resonated."

He excelled at Carnegie Tech and in 1967 received a bachelor of science degree with high honors in both mathematics and English.

Then it was on to Harvard University, where he earned a master's degree in English literature, but also realized his affinity for the scientific study of language, when he cross registered at MIT for an introductory graduate course in syntax.

"Upon receiving my master's degree, I once again - and for the final time - switched fields," says Lasnik. "I transferred to the Department of Foreign Languages and Linguistics at MIT. That introductory syntax course, taught by two legends of linguistics and teaching, Morris Halle and John Robert ('Haj') Ross, changed my life."

Throughout his career, Lasnik - who dances to Scottish music and plays drums in his spare time - has kept the beat going with Noam Chomsky, a professor at MIT whom he considers to be the "greatest linguist" of all time.

Chomsky was Lasnik's thesis advisor at MIT and that marked the beginning of a long and trusted relationship that has included years of joint research. In the recently published MIT book, Step-by-Step, Chomsky returns Lasnik's compliment: "I'd like to take the occasion to express my special indebtedness to Howard Lasnik for many years of close collaboration, which has been extremely rewarding for me and is most inadequately recorded in print, though well known to participants in these enterprises."

For Lasnik, the linguist, the sentence needs no investigation. It's quite perfect.

Claudia G. Chamberlain