Headshot of Deborah Tannen
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Linguistics Professor Deborah Tannen Elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences

Department of Linguistics professor Deborah Tannen was recently chosen to become a member of the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The linguist joins a group of accomplished individuals who are engaged in advancing the public good, which will enable her to continue achieving her goal of “figuring out and explaining how language works.” 

“I realized early on that the insights I was uncovering were as exciting—and essential–to people outside academia as to my academic colleagues,” Tannen says. “I am deeply honored by my election to the Academy, which strengthens the foundation on which both these aspects of my work are built.”

Linguistics and Language

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences was founded in order to create an organization that would both honor exceptional individuals in their fields and encourages collaboration for the betterment of society.

In 2021, Tannen was chosen by the Academy along with more than 250 new artists, scholars, scientists, and leaders from the public, non-profit and private sectors to be a part of this group. 

One of only six faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences who holds the distinguished rank of University Professor, Tannen has written numerous books and articles about how everyday conversation affects relationships. 

“Linguistics gave me a way to combine my love of language with an equally strong interest in human relationships,” Tannen says “From my first exposure to linguistics, I was transfixed by the realization that everything about how we say what we mean—what I came to call ‘conversational style’—affects relationships.” 

In conversations, we draw conclusions about how people mean what they say as well as about their intentions and abilities–and they draw conclusions about ours– but these are less accurate when conversational styles differ. Tannen has spent her life exploring this and other areas of communication. 

In addition to her extensive research on everyday conversations, she has examined spoken and written discourse, public discourse, doctor-patient communication, and social media discourse. Tannen is the author of numerous New York Times bestsellers, most notably You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, which brought gender differences in communication style to the forefront of public awareness.  

The professor has been a guest on television and radio shows like The Colbert Report, Good Morning America, The Today Show, NPR’s All Things Considered and Oprah. Tannen has also been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, HuffPost, Time, and The Harvard Business Review.

Tannen has been McGraw Distinguished Lecturer at Princeton University, spent a term in residence at the Institute for Advanced Study and has twice been a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford. The recipient of five honorary doctorates, she is a member of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation Board of Directors.

Elizabeth Zsiga, chair of linguistics, says that she and the department are “thrilled to congratulate our colleague on this well-deserved honor.” 

“Deborah Tannen’s work has been groundbreaking in the academic discipline of Discourse Analysis, but she also models for all of us how the results of the linguistic study can be made accessible, can inform our public discourse, and can improve the lives of people outside academia,” Zsiga explains. “Conversation is central to Linguistics, but also to our everyday lives, and Deborah Tannen’s work has been uniquely successful in making that connection.”

-by Shelby Roller (G’19)