Gutenberg Research Award for American Linguist Leonard Talmy

Innovative pioneer of modern linguistics and 'founding father' of Cognitive Linguistics honored in Mainz


The Gutenberg Research College (GRC) of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) in Germany confers this year’s Gutenberg Research Award on the internationally renowned linguist and cognitive scientist Leonard Talmy. Leonard Talmy is one of the most innovative pioneers of modern linguistics, one of the ‘founding fathers’ of Cognitive Linguistics, a leading language typologist, and a researcher with outstanding accomplishments at the interface of language and cognition. The prize was awarded on May 21, 2012 in a festive ceremony at Mainz University. While continuing the award tradition that was started six years ago by the JGU Graduate of School of Excellence "Materials Science in Mainz" (MAINZ), the Gutenberg Research Award has now been moved under the auspices of the university’s Gutenberg Research College, which allows it for the first time to include all research areas at JGU in the nomination process.

Giving this year’s Gutenberg Research Award to Leonard Talmy, Professor emeritus of Linguistics at the State University of New York in Buffalo, the Gutenberg Research College of Mainz University honors the achievements of one of the most innovative pioneers of modern linguistics and cognitive science in general. His work has been appreciated across discipline borders, including the so-called hard sciences. Within the linguistic community Talmy counts as one of the leading language typologists and is probably best known as one of the ‘founding fathers’ of Cognitive Linguistics, which is a more semantically oriented counterbalance to formal cognitive linguistics of the Chomskyan strand. In Cognitive Linguistics Talmy has defined his own outstanding profile by establishing what has become known as Cognitive Semantics.

Talmy’s understanding of Cognitive Linguistics is rooted in the conviction that language as a cognitive system shares some of its fundamental design features with other cognitive systems (e.g., the human visual system), but also exhibits characteristics and organizational principles genuine to language alone. Thus, language structures can neither be directly derived from general cognition nor is language to be seen as a completely autonomous model of human cognitive architecture. Talmy’s integrative and encompassive "Overlapping Systems Model of Cognitive Organization," an independent stance within Cognitive Linguistics, might not be shared by all members of the community, but it may well explain why Leonard Talmy’s work has been received and widely appreciated not only by linguists outside the paradigm, but also by developmental psychologists, applied linguists and foreign language teaching experts, and even philosophers.

Among his best known and outstanding accomplishments at the interface of language and cognition are seminal studies on motion typology, cross-linguistic representations of space concepts, lexicalization patterns in the languages of the world, an evolutionary model of compositionality in language that is very much compatible with current neuroscientific binding models of neural synchrony. Beyond the core area of cognitive semantics, Leonard Talmy has published influential articles on the culture system and on narrative structure that testify to his rigorously interdisciplinary stance.

Since the 1980s Leonard Talmy has been opening up new vistas on the concept of attention in language, a dimension long – and in fact still – neglected in linguistics, and on the conceptual system of force dynamics, a full-fledged and coherent structuring system in language, which has earned him noticeable approval beyond linguistics, for example in physics.

Most recently, Leonard Talmy has devoted his analytical skills to disentangling the commonalities, differences, and interrelations of spoken language and gesturing, suggesting that spoken language can not do without support from gestures. A groundbreaking work with the title How Language Aims at Targets: The Cognitive System Underlying Deixis and Anaphora is near completion.

Leonard Talmy was born in Chicago, he received his B.A. in Linguistics from the University of California at Berkley in 1963 and his doctorate in 1972 for his pioneering work on the now extinct Native American language Atsugewi, of which he is the last 'speaker.' Further academic positions followed at Stanford University as a member of Joseph Greenberg’s famous typology project and at the University of California in San Diego, where he helped develop the foundations of Connectionism. Back in Berkeley, he became the first coordinator of the then newly established Program in Cognitive Sciences, and from 1990 he was a Professor of Linguistics at the State University of New York at Buffalo and director of the newly established Center of Cognitive Science up to his retirement in 2005. Leonard Talmy now lives in Berkeley again and is still an active member of the local academic community.

Leonard Talmy and the Department of English and Linguistics at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz have established close relations and maintained a fruitful cooperation for quite a few years now. Besides a profound and long-lasting personal contact to individual members of the department, Leonard Talmy has acted as an external reviewer in a postdoctoral lecturing qualification procedure. In 2009 he was a guest lecturer and co-conducted a research seminar on "Language and Attention." He has also been a consultant to one of the component projects within the large-scale research project on "Determinants of Linguistic Variation;" and already in July 2012 he will be a guest in Mainz again: He is one of the keynote speakers at the interdisciplinary symposium on "Attention across Disciplines," which is organized at JGU on the occasion of Leonard Talmy’s 70th birthday. Other speakers will include renowned brain researcher and director of the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research Wolf Singer and the acknowledged digital architect Georg Franck from the Vienna University of Technology.

Leonard Talmy’s impressive list of achievements in international linguistics and cognitive science is even more remarkable when one learns that he has been completely blind since the mid-1990s. This, however, has never kept him from travelling the world to be a cherished plenary speaker and intriguing discussant at many international conferences. His probably most conspicuous scientific achievement has been his intricate ability to open up new vistas, advance new research agendas, give new impetus to the linguistic community that has stirred discipline-transcending vivid debates and, at the same time, instigated sustainable paradigm changes. In light of this notable impact, it is indeed a characteristic of Leonard Talmy’s personal modesty that in the title of his major two-volume work Toward a Cognitive Semantics he uses "toward," which makes him an outstanding honoree of the 2012 Gutenberg Research Award in many respects.