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For Alvin M. Liberman

from Charles Perfetti, Pittsburgh, February 10, 2000

Dear Friends,

Because I am unable to attend the Memorial Service, I wanted at least to express my solidarity with some of Al's colleagues and friends at Haskins Laboratories. I also want to register my deep sense of admiration for Al Liberman.

I am one of those who knew Al from reading his work long before I met him personally. The Psychological Review paper of 1967, co-authored by Al and three others of you at Haskins, came at a time when I was just starting my first academic appointment, which I still hold, at the University of Pittsburgh. I had worked in the cognitive psychology of syntax and semantics, and knew nothing about speech perception. (And nothing about reading either.) On first reading, that paper asserted a hold on me that would not diminish with time. It not only opened my eyes to a truly deep problem -- one that had largely evaded my attention during my psycholinguistics training at the University of Michigan -- it offered an elegant solution that made sense in light of other things I thought had to be true of human language. The four names on that paper became icons for me, representing what a science of language could be like. The theory became an important part of my graduate and undergraduate courses in psycholinguistics and has remained so across the years. Those moments when I could see students "getting it" about the motor theory were the high points of my classes. I felt personally responsible for making sure that this theory -- along with companion approaches to language that shared its sense that the mind/brain must have some special properties such that language and speech work the way they do -- was represented in Western Pennsylvania.

I cannot remember exactly when I met Al -- I think it was when we were both on some Washington panel -- but it was late enough in my career that I recall feeling sheepish about finally meeting someone whom I'd admired so much through text. As I got to know him better I came to appreciate the personality that so beautifully matched his scientific writing. It became impossible from then on to read something Al had written without hearing him and seeing him deliver the message in person. I came to appreciate also how important issues of reading had become to him and how terrific his collaborations with Isabelle were for that field.

Indeed, one of the many honors Al earned was the Society for the Scientific Study of Reading's 1997 Outstanding Scientific Contributions. This award, of course, was shared with Don Shankweiler (also on of the icons on that 1967 paper!) and Isabelle Liberman, a happy reflection of long-time collaborations on what reading is and how it is learned. Al's acceptance address the next year was a spellbinding no-notes oration of the highest kind to be found in science.

It is my intention to initiate, at the next meeting of the SSSR Board, some official means for the SSSR to honor Al (and Isabelle) in a way that would be lasting and meaningful in supporting scientific achievement in reading.

I hope you don't mind receiving my ramblings on e-mail. These are just a few of the thoughts I would have liked to express in person on in the company of Al Liberman's many friends and colleagues. Our memories heighten both our sense of loss and our sense of his special place in our lives.

Charles Perfetti
Pittsburgh, Feb 10 2000

 

   

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