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Linguist and Scientist: Board of Governors Professor Alan Prince



Professor Prince, the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Rutgers Board of Trustees Award for Excellence in Research, is internationally acknowledged as a leading linguist and cognitive scientist. 

His position in the field is built on a lifetime of groundbreaking contributions to the theory of natural language grammar.  His most notable achievement, however, is the invention of Optimality Theory, a radically novel conception of universal grammar, and one of the single most influential piece of work in linguistics of the last 25 years. “Alan Prince is known throughout academia for his impressive contributions in phonology and formal linguistics, as well as for having established the Rutgers Optimality Archive, an online repository of more than 1,100 works on Optimality Theory,” said Rutgers President Richard L. McCormick at the Board of Governors ceremony. 

“At Rutgers, students and colleagues value his inspirational teaching and his commitment to mentoring.”  His current work marks a major new initiative in the analysis of the theory, using completely new formal elements unprecedented in the literature, as he continues to be a dynamic intellectual force driving research in the area of Optimality Theory. 

Alan Prince joined the Department of Linguistics and the Rutgers Center for Cognitive Science (RuCCS) in 1992. Before coming to Rutgers, he had done foundational work in the modern theory of prosodic structure and in developing from it a new model of the relation between prosody and word-form (‘Prosodic Morphology’). His work with Steven Pinker on connectionist models of inflectional learning had major impact on both sides of the debate. In 1993, he and Paul Smolensky introduced Optimality Theory, which rapidly came to dominate subsequent developments in phonology, with Professor Prince himself playing a prominent role in its progress.

Optimality Theory: Ideas and Impact

Linguistics has found that language -- even the most ordinary sort -- is intricately structured. Generative linguistics aims to discover exactly what those structures are and how they are grasped intuitively by native speakers, who use them fluently from early childhood. Linguists focus on the automatic, spontaneous aspects of language, because these are vastly richer than the superficial do’s-and-don’ts of so-called ‘correct’ speech and writing.

The great discovery of the last century is that natural languages share many properties, and that even their modes of difference are tightly restricted. The central problem of linguistics, for many investigators, is to explain how variation and universality can coexist in one system. The work and ideas of Noam Chomsky provide the background for research in this area. In 1993, Professor Alan Prince, in collaboration with Professor Paul Smolensky, now of The Johns Hopkins University, developed a new way of looking at this problem, under the name of ‘Optimality Theory’. They started from the then-shocking idea that the constraints defining linguistic form — which they hypothesized to be shared by all languages — are inherently conflicting and contradictory. The structure of an individual language, according to their proposal, is obtained by resolving the conflicts through a system of prioritization. In a bold stroke, every possible prioritization is admitted as a possible language. The immediate consequence is that languages must vary, because priorities vary even while the principles in conflict stay the same. A further consequence is that factors which are obvious in one language, because of high priority there, may still have subtle effects in other languages, where they are far from obvious because of low priority; and they can only be completely absent from a language when other constraints exist to obscure them. In their foundational work, Prince and Smolensky set out the formal structure of the theory in detail and explored a wide variety of phenomena in its terms, establishing many of the basic constraints and constraint interactions in the domain of phonology, the study of sound structure and its relation to word structure. They also began the formal work of analyzing the intricate predictions that arise from the simple-seeming basic ideas of the theory.

Optimality Theory attracted immediate interest, perhaps because it resolved some outstanding conceptual puzzles that had been holding up progress in the field, perhaps because it gave linguists the formal tools to do exact analysis under the guidance of ideas that had previously been regarded as attractive but vague. (A fair amount of controversy also sprang up — perhaps, Prince says, for the very same reasons.) An international brigade of linguists was soon applying it to virtually every problem in phonology, with some of the more adventurous extending it to the study of sentence structure and meaning. The linguists were soon joined by computationalists and psycholinguists interested in questions of language learning and processing. Rutgers linguists, including Professors Akinlabi, Grimshaw, Tesar, and more recently de Lacy and Kawahara, have been prominent in these developments. Professor Prince’s empirical work focuses on prosody — how segments combine into syllables, syllables into larger rhythmic units, and how these units influence the shape of words — drawing on ideas that he had been instrumental in introducing in the 1970’s and 1980’s. He also has strong Cognitive Science interests, with roots in the Pinker & Prince critique of connectionism, and he has collaborated on the associated learning theory with Professor Tesar, a prime mover in this area. Twenty-first century developments include intensive exploration of variants and offshoots, some anticipated by Prince and Smolensky, others not, as well as continued progress with the original model. In recent years, Prince has devoted attention to unraveling the formal structure of the theory, which he has shown to rely on a known but nonstandard logic. From those findings, he has developed techniques that enable deeper analysis of linguistic data, which he has incorporated into software tools, created with colleagues and students at Rutgers.

In 1993, Prince set up the Rutgers Optimality Archive with SAS support. ROA continues to play a major role in the rapid dissemination of ideas and results in Optimality Theory, allowing free access to the latest research well before it can appear in print. Prince is himself an enthusiastic participant in electronic distribution through the Archive and most of his Optimality Theory work can be found there. Over the years, more than 600 authors have posted to ROA. Archived items range from short technical reports to entire books, including 140 dissertations, with contributions from many centers of linguistic research in the U.S and abroad.



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