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MIT Professor to Discuss ‘Identity Thesis for Language and Music’ Oct. 14 at Syracuse

David Pesetsky will examine linguistic relationship between words, pitches

Oct 13, 2014 | Article by: Rob Enslin

Photo of David Pesetsky

David Pesetsky


Paralells between music and language are the focus of an upcoming presentation in Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences.

David Pesetsky, a world-renowned linguist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), will discuss “Language and Music: Same Structures, Different Building Blocks” on Tuesday, Oct. 14, at 7:15 p.m. in Maxwell Auditorium. The event is free and open to the public. For more information, contact organizer Jaklin Kornfilt at 315-443-5375 and kornfilt@syr.edu.

Pesetsky’s lecture is co-sponsored by the Central New York Humanities Corridor (made possible by an award from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation); the interdisciplinary Linguistic Studies Program in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Linguistics (LLL); and the Syracuse University Humanities Center.

“Professor Pesetsky will offer a linguist’s perspective on the kinship between music and language,” says Kornfilt, professor of linguistics in LLL. “His lecture will focus on the idea that, although words and pitches are different, the ways they combine are the same.”

Pesetsky’s lecture is one of several this semester at Syracuse, where he is the Humanities Corridor’s Mellon Visiting Collaborator.

On Tuesday, Pesetsky will discuss his collaboration with Jonah Katz, a linguistics professor at West Virginia University. Both professors argue that the syntax of tonal music is identical to the structure of language—something they call the “Identity Thesis for Language and Music.”

“They assert that the formal differences between language and music are a consequence of the differences in their fundamental building blocks,” Kornfilt continues. “But what language and music do with these building blocks is identical.”

An expert in syntax, morphology, and Russian language, Pesetsky chairs the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy at MIT, where he also serves as the Ferrari P. Ward Professor of Modern Languages and Linguistics and the Cecil H. Green (1923) MacVicar Faculty Fellow.

Also an accomplished violinist, Pesetsky is the author of three groundbreaking books on syntactic theory; and numerous articles about Universal Grammar, a theory positing that the ability to learn grammar is hard-wired into the brain. Prior to joining MIT’s faculty in 1988, he held faculty positions at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the University of Southern California.

The Central New York Humanities Corridor, generously supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is a unique regional collaboration between Syracuse, Cornell and University of Rochester, and the Schools of the New York Six Liberal Arts Consortium, in seven areas of research and humanistic inquiry. Each institution brings a vibrant and distinguished humanistic scholarly tradition to the collective work of the CNY Humanities Corridor. In the aggregate, the Corridor’s programs bolster the relationships, productivity, and reciprocity common to the region’s humanities community, as well as heightened visibility, enhancing public engagement in its activities. The initiative is regarded as a highly visible scholarly presence in the region, if not nationally, as a new model of collaboration and resource sharing that can also be adapted to other regions and inter-university partnerships.


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Contact Information

Rob Enslin
315-443-3403
rmenslin@syr.edu