UA Professor Wins Prestigious Humboldt Prize

Professor Thomas Bever is the recipient of the Alexander von Humboldt Research Prize, a prestigious international award.

Bever, a professor of linguistics and psychology at the University of Arizona, is also on the faculty of the Cognitive Science Program, the Neuroscience Program, Second Language Acquisition and Teaching (SLAT), and Language Reading & Culture in the College of Education.

The award is granted to academics whose fundamental discoveries, new theories, or insights have had a significant impact on their discipline and who are expected to continue producing cutting-edge achievements in the future.

Recipients of the Humboldt Prize are nominated by established academics in Germany. Only eminent foreign researchers at the peak of their academic careers and in leading positions are eligible for the award.

Award winners are invited to spend up to one year cooperating on a long-term research project with colleagues at a research institution in Germany. The award is valued at 60,000 EUR.

“This is a wonderful surprise for me. Generally, this prize has gone to those in the physical and mathematical sciences. This award reflects the growing understanding that linguistics, cognitive science and related fields are coming of age as true sciences,” said Bever.

Bever's teaching and research focus on the foundations of cognitive and linguistic universals. His research areas include sentence comprehension, cerebral asymmetries in humans and animals, constraints on learning in humans and animals, spatial cognition in humans and animals, reading, and aesthetics.

In the nominating letter, Professor Thomas Pechmann from the University of Leipzig wrote, “Bever has used the study of language as a focus for a theory that integrates the dual roles of associative habits with structured mental computations --- a major theoretical issue in cognitive science. He has been an influential force in productively reconciling innatist approaches to language with biological and functional approaches.

“Among the founding fathers of cognitive science, Bever is hardly rivaled worldwide,” Pechmann added. “Over the past 45 years, Bever has not only significantly shaped psycholinguistics in many different ways, but also made essential contributions to cognitive neuroscience, theoretical linguistics, developmental psychology, and animal cognition.”

In addition to his university-based research, Bever has been instrumental in creating and patenting software that uses psycholinguistic principles to reformat text so that it is easier and more enjoyable to read.

“It is important that we can make linguistic and cognitive science research of immediate practical value to society,” said Bever. This technology is now implemented by a Tucson company, Language Technologies Inc.

Bever’s academic prowess and interdisciplinary interests have their origin in his college education. He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard, with a summa cum laude in linguistics. His tutor at Harvard was the world-renowned linguist Roman Jakobson. Bever was then invited to join the first graduate class in linguistics at MIT with Noam Chomsky. 

While Bever was getting his Ph.D. in linguistics, he was simultaneously passing all the requirements for an MIT psychology doctoral degree. As a Junior Fellow at Harvard, he was a member of the Harvard Center for Cognitive Studies, an early precursor of today’s cognitive science.

“I learned with great pleasure that Tom Bever has been awarded the Humboldt Prize,” said Chomsky. “It is fitting recognition for his remarkable achievements in the many domains in which he has opened new and profitable directions, and enriched understanding with his imaginative ideas, penetrating insights, and impressive contributions.”

In 1974, Bever co-authored “The Psychology of Language,” which helped establish modern psycholinguistics. He is the co-founder (in 1973) and long term co-editor of the journal “Cognition.” He has published more than 150 papers in peer-reviewed journals, more than 40 book chapters and several influential books. 

“This is wonderful recognition for Tom's huge contributions to linguistics and cognitive science,” said Mike Hammond, head of the linguistics department. “He's an incredible asset to the department of linguistics specifically and the University of Arizona more generally.”

“Tom’s research was instrumental in laying the foundations for the field of cognitive science,” said Lee Ryan, associate department head of psychology.  “His work on language cuts across boundaries and combines the best of linguistics, cognitive psychology, biology, and development psychology. This award is really a testament to the importance of his prior work and the promise of his work in the future. We’re fortunate to have him here at UA.”

Contact:  Thomas Bever, professor of linguistics, tgb@email.arizona.edu, 520-626-6366