David W Lightfoot


Professor of Linguistics; Director, Communication, Culture & Technology, Director, Interdisciplinary
Professor of Linguistics; Director, Communication, Culture & Technology; Co-Director, Interdisciplinary concentration in Cognitive Science


Graduate School of Arts and Sciences
General profile



+1 202-687-4804





Dr. Lightfoot views language as part of human biology. Homo sapiens evolved to have a language organ, enabling us to think and communicate in the way we do. That language organ is represented in a person's mind/brain and embodies his/her language faculty. By studying language variation, acquisition by children (on exposure to very limited experiences), and the way that language properties change over time (in sequences of occasional bursts), Lightfoot, along with others, has discovered key properties of this biological capacity. Those discoveries about language are part of new understanding of human cognition more broadly, including emotion, memory, vision, audition, and more.

Lightfoot has published eleven books, most recently The Development of Language: Acquisition, change, and evolution (Blackwell, 1999), Syntactic Effects of Morphological Change (ed.) (Oxford UP, 2002), The Language Organ: Linguistics as cognitive physiology (with S.R. Anderson) (Cambridge UP, 2002), and How New Languages Emerge (Cambridge UP, 2006). He is the author of over 100 articles, book chapters, and reviews. He is General Editor for the Generative Syntax series published by Wiley-Blackwell, and serves on linguistics editorial boards at Cambridge and Oxford University Presses. In 2004, he was elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and in 2006, as a fellow of the Linguistic Society of America. He was also elected as President of the Linguistic Society of America, serving 2010-2011.

He received his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in 1971 and has held regular professorial appointments at McGill University (where he taught many undergraduates who went on to become major figures in linguistics and psychology), the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, and the University of Maryland (where he established and chaired for 12 years, a new department of linguistics with a unique focus on linguistics as the study of the human language organ). He was also Associate Director of the Neuroscience and Cognitive Sciences program there. In 2001, he moved to Georgetown University as dean of the graduate school. From 2005 to 2009 he served as Assistant Director of the National Science Foundation, heading the Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences. In 2009 he returned to Georgetown, where he is directing the undergraduate interdisciplinary program in Cognitive Science and the graduate program in Communication, Culture & Technology. In addition, he has held short-term appointments at universities in Austria, Brazil, Canada, the Netherlands, Germany, Hungary, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

His honors include a Fulbright Scholarship, a Ford Foundation Fellowship, an American Council of Learned Societies Fellowship, various research grants including four from the National Science Foundation, a Fulbright Distinguished Chair at the University of Trieste (2010), and the Linguistic Service Award from the Linguistic Society of America for transitioning the LSA into new digital scholarly publications.


Download cv.doc


  • B.A. () University of London, King's College,
  • M.A. () University of Michigan,
  • Ph.D. () University of Michigan,


  • Dutch (speak, read, write)
  • French (speak, read, write)
  • Greek, Ancient (to 1453) (read, write)
  • Italian (read)
  • Latin (read, write)
  • Sanskrit (read)