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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University September 11, 2006 | Vol. 36 No. 2
Linguist Paul Smolensky Named Krieger-Eisenhower Professor

Paul Smolensky, a professor in the Cognitive Science Department of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, has been named a Krieger-Eisenhower Professor.

Smolensky is internationally renowned for his work in formal theoretical approaches to linguistics, in particular, for having developed, with Alan Prince of Rutgers, a novel formal characterization of the complex rule systems of grammar called Optimality Theory.

Smolensky has been a member of the Cognitive Science Department since 1994 and served as chair between 1997 and 2000. Since 1994, he has been assistant director of the Center for Language and Speech Processing. He also is the architect and director of the NSF Interdisciplinary Graduate Education Research and Training Program in Cognitive Science, which was designed to create a new breed of scientist trained in multidisciplinary approaches to the study of language and mind.

Smolensky's work begins with the recognition that higher cognitive domains like language and reasoning rely on complex symbolic rule systems, but it equally acknowledges that the higher forms of intelligence encoded in symbolic systems reside in the brain, where computation appears to be numerical, not symbolic. He has developed a mathematical theory of the mind/brain that allows for the formal combination of symbolic, numerical (neural) and statistical computation, explaining how the complex symbolic systems that characterize language and thought could be instantiated in the brain and affected by the statistical regularities inherent in experience.

According to a part of this general theory, Optimality Theory, human languages share a common set of universal constraints that govern the well-formedness of words and sentences. But since these constraints are highly general, they conflict and thus at any moment some of the underlying constraints must be violated in optimal, that is, grammatical, structures. The different patterns that characterize the world's languages emerge via the differential ways languages prioritize the fixed set of universal constraints.

Optimality Theory provides a new computational architecture for human language; it is widely recognized as the most important modification to Noam Chomsky's theories of language and generative grammar to appear over the course of the last three decades.

Smolensky's innovative formal contributions to cognitive science and linguistics have been recognized by the award of numerous prizes, most recently that of the David E. Rumelhart Prize for Theoretical Contributions to Cognitive Science, in 2005. He is author or editor of well over 100 articles and of seven books, the most recent of which is the landmark two-volume work The Harmonic Mind (with JHU's Géraldine Legendre). His ongoing research is dedicated to exploring multiple aspects of Optimality Theory in phonology as well as the wider implications of his theory for psycholinguistics, neuroscience and the philosophy of mind.


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