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Language and Logic

Barbara Hall Partee ’61, H’89 joined the likes of Thomas Edison, Marie Curie, Frank Lloyd Wright, and many other industry leaders when she accepted the prestigious Benjamin Franklin Medal at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. 

Partee, a professor emerita of linguistics and philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, received the award for her work in formal semantics, a field she created. Partee is quick to draw a line from the award back to her time at Swarthmore. 

“When I started there, I was interested in two things, math and Russian,” she says.
“I didn’t know which to major in, but my adviser helped me figure out a way to do both.”

Formal semantics, says Partee, is a way to combine language and logic.

“It’s the process of figuring out the meanings of sentences from the meanings of their parts,” she explains. “It’s the principal of compositionality.” 

Her work took her to Russia in the 1990s, where she met and married her husband. “We split our time between the two countries, and I introduced formal semantics to Russia,” she says. “I used to say I’d never retire because I found something I love. As an academic, I can keep my hands in the field but say ‘no’ to all the parts I don’t want to do. It’s perfect.”