The LSA Member Spotlight highlights the interests and accomplishments of a different LSA member each month. If you would like to recommend an LSA member for a future Member Spotlight, please contact Brice Russ, LSA Director of Communications.

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Kai von Fintel, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Kai von Fintel headshot


I was born on a cold winter's night in a small village on the Lüneburg Heath. I grew up in Walsrode and Münster. I studied English, Philosophy, History of Art, and eventually Linguistics at the Universities of Münster and Köln. I spent half a year as an exchange student at Pembroke College, Cambridge. In 1988, I started grad school in linguistics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where my teachers included Barbara Partee, Emmon Bach, Roger Higgins, and my doctor mother Angelika Kratzer.

I started teaching at MIT in 1993 and have been there ever since. For seven years, I served as the Associate Dean of MIT's School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. I am now the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Linguistics. I live with my wife, two kids (one at college), our dog, two cats, and two dwarf rabbits in an intentional community west of Boston. I watch a lot of soccer, I cook, and I run.

Kai von Fintel was named a Fellow of the LSA earlier this month.

Q: When did you first join the LSA?

I joined the LSA as a grad student (as everybody should).

I attended the 1989 Summer Institute in Tucson, Arizona, where I met my wife, and the 1991 Summer Institute in Santa Cruz, CA. These were formative experiences for me as a linguist and I urge all linguistics students to try to attend at least one Institute during their grad school years. My first professional talk was in a workshop at the 1989 Summer Institute; I was astonishingly nervous and almost withdrew from giving the talk but my teacher Barbara Partee talked me down from the ledge and in the end I gave a well-received talk.

Q: How have you been involved with the LSA since you joined?

I taught at the Summer Institutes at MIT (2005) and UC Berkeley (2009), and the joint DGfS/LSA summer school in Düsseldorf (2002). But my most important involvement with the LSA is that I am the founding co-editor of Semantics and Pragmatics (S&P), an open-access journal that I started with my friend and colleague David Beaver.

The LSA, through its eLanguage initiative, approached us to become part of their publication program when we were starting to put the journal together. After five years of publication, S&P became a full-fledged LSA journal in 2013, standing next to LSA's flagship journal Language.

Q: What is one thing that linguists should know about submitting to an academic journal?

Publishing a scientific article means taking part in a long-running conversation. Make sure that you are respectful of what has been contributed so far, make clear what your contribution is, be generous to other scholars, and discuss your manuscript before submission with friends, colleagues, and mentors.

Q: What are you currently researching?

I have two long-standing research collaborations: one with my MIT colleague Sabine Iatridou and one with Rutgers University philosopher Thony Gillies. Both actually revolve around questions about modality and conditionals, with a cross-linguistic and syntax/semantics focus in my work with Sabine, and with a logico-philosophical perspective in my work with Thony.

I continue to work with both on several projects. Sabine and I just finished a manuscript about imperatives, and Thony and I have ongoing work on the interaction of conditionals with context, and on the semantics of deontic modality.

Q: What is your personal favorite linguistic article or study?

In one sense, this is impossible to answer, there's simply so much great work that I admire and benefit from. In another sense, it's easy: the single most impressive work in our field is my colleague Irene Heim's dissertation from 1982. It was a defining moment in the development of modern natural language semantics at the confluence of work deriving from formal logic and the generative linguistic framework.

Q: What, in your opinion, is the most important service the LSA provides to its members? To the field?

In many ways, the LSA is our union, the professional umbrella for all linguists in the US. The publication program, the Annual Meetings, the Summer Institutes, the advocacy in Washington, all combine to provide an indispensable coherence to the field. If there wasn't an LSA, we'd have to invent it.