Remembering Anne Cutler

Remembering Anne Cutler

Anne Cutler, a Fellow of the Cognitive Science Society, was a truly international, interdisciplinary, and innovative scientist. Her pioneering work on how humans recognize spoken language was recognized by accolades from the Royal Society and British Academy in the UK, American Philosophical Society and National Academy of Sciences in the US, Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, and Academy of Humanities and Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, among others. 

She used the inherent diversity of the world’s languages to investigate how speech was segmented into units, the role prosody played in speech comprehension, and the way listeners are able to adapt to an individual’s particular way of producing sounds, throughout combining elegant experimental work with theory building. In addition to her many scientific achievements and accolades, Anne was a staunch advocate of early career scholars — especially women — giving encouragement, support, and the occasional rousing remarks that led all in her sphere to feel they could also do more and do it better. She is sadly missed.

More detailed accounts of her life and work are available in an obituary from Western Sydney University. Below, four students, friends, and colleagues remember Anne and her work.

Daniel Swingley
University of Pennsylvania

Anne Cutler was a unique figure in the science of language, an inspiration and a good sport who loved to win but could laugh when she lost. Her central question was this: when you know a language, how do you bring that knowledge to bear during the moment-by-moment understanding of speech? She studied this question in every possible way, inventing and refining experimental methods as she went, and enlisting an ever-expanding number of students and collaborators around the world. Her lab meetings in the Comprehension Group at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics would often feature someone’s observation that two languages differed in their possession of some phonetic correlate of word boundaries, phrase edges, or syntactic classes, and then a spirited debate about testing how this probabilistic feature of a language might have engendered in its speakers a bias or obligation to parse their language, and probably others, partially through the lens of that heuristic. Further, if it turned out that speakers of different languages took advantage of different sorts of information, what were the implications for the nature of language structure, and for the properties of the human learner and thinker?

Anne was fascinated by the variety of human language, delighted by it, but behind her avid enthusiasm there was a core of pragmatism and rigor that supported all her work. She saw what to do and what not to do. She knew the experimental literature better than everyone else and was quicker than just about anyone, and as a result, many of us had the experience in lab meetings of having our bad ideas shot down like dumb clay pigeons. My own first experience of this came about in a chance meeting in Nijmegen’s police department, where we each happened to be one morning — she as part of an annual foreigner registration ritual she was openly grumpy about, and I as a graduate student visiting Nijmegen for the first time — and we took advantage of our hour in the waiting room to have our first scientific meeting. I do not recall the idea I floated for the study I would do while visiting the Max Planck Institute, but I have a distinct recollection of her saying, immediately, “well you won’t do *that*.” But she loved a good idea, and would work at it, and would come find you to talk about it some more.

The research area she created was rich and varied and its exploration became the work of several academic generations of students, postdocs, and visitors. As a mentor she could be trusted to be straight about what she thought, which made her intimidating to some, but she looked out for her students and defended them, and her capacity for unconditional commitment to a joke or pun, however silly or obtuse, leavened the awe substantially. She had energy, conviction, curiosity, and good humor, and she loved working with others to help them understand how language works. 

Andrea Weber
University of Tübingen

When I started my PhD project, I was more than a little intimidated by Anne’s reputation. I was then a PhD student in her Comprehension Department at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics from 1997 to 2001. However, I soon learned that while she demanded much from others and was very direct in voicing her opinions, she was also incredibly giving and supportive, especially of junior researchers. She made it very clear to us that our research was important and interesting because it advanced the field (and if she did not like something about it, you would also know). A particularly well-designed study would make her excited and proud and put a twinkle in her eyes; she had the details of all our experiments at her fingertips, sometimes better than we ourselves did.

Comprehension Department members always had their doors open and there was a general sense of community and shared responsibility for the success of all group members. This was Anne’s doing and turned us into a family. Tuesday group meetings were mandatory. We presented our newest results and practiced talks and poster presentations. Everyone participated and no detail was small enough to escape discussion or be corrected (Anne’s passionate insistence on black letters on a white background and her aversion to “Thank you”-slides is something that most of us will remember). No one wanted to disappoint Anne with a performance that was not absolutely stellar.

One of the many fond memories I have of Anne is of my first conference talk in Aix-en-Provence. I was so nervous waiting for my turn to speak that when I got up from my seat, I spilled a full glass of water over Anne, who was sitting next to me. She took it in stride and stayed seated during the whole talk — soaking wet —so she could hear the comments I got, and we could discuss them afterwards. With her help I turned the study I presented into my first published paper. Only later did I learn to appreciate that, considering all her support, publishing it as a single author paper was anything but a given. Whenever her PhD students finished their dissertation, Anne gave them a print of their personal academic family tree. The tree showed the direct line from Anne to Wilhelm Wundt and I am particularly proud to have one.

Even after I left the Max Planck Institute, Anne remained an important mentor. She continued to give me valuable advice (her email responses were typically lightning-fast), she helped me return to the institute for several years, and initiated new collaborations and research. She was a force to be reckoned with! Her commitment to get research done and done right, her passion for language, and her continual support for young researchers changed not just our research field, but also the lives of those who were fortunate enough to work with her. I am certain few people who have met Anne forgot the experience. I remain so deeply impressed by Anne and her passing away is a great personal loss.

Natasha Warner
University of Arizona

Anne Cutler was a force of nature. I had the great privilege to do a postdoc under her supervision from 1998–2001, and to work with her sporadically in the years after that. I am so grateful for how she changed my life and for everything she taught me. Anne was intense, fiery, and insightful, and a huge source of inspiration and ideas. She believed with unwavering dedication in the importance of doing science, sharing one’s science through publication, and mentoring junior scientists to continue the investigation. So many of us benefitted especially from her very intentional, conscious approach to mentoring.  She made sure to co-author enough papers with each of her junior colleagues. Then she took it a step further and trained us in how to become good mentors to junior colleagues ourselves. She provided exceptionally thoughtful training in experimental design, as well as in writing, publication, giving talks, and mentoring. I often find myself giving students feedback and thinking “Anne taught me that.”  

I am especially thankful to Anne for her support when I had a baby while I was working for her as a postdoc. At that time, it was not obvious that a postdoc was allowed to have a baby, let alone allowed to combine that baby with work. Anne was completely supportive, including when I brought my son to work and there was sometimes baby noise. On another topic, I appreciated Anne’s enthusiasm for the Netherlands. I especially appreciated her encouragement on learning Dutch. She was a wonderful model on that.

Anne was a huge presence in our lives. She laughed more at work, and more loudly than anyone else I can imagine. It was a joy to gradually get to know her outside of work over the years. I’m so grateful to have known her.

Catherine Best
Western Sydney University

I first encountered Anne giving stellar talks and making astute comments at some conference or other (I don’t recall which one or what year). She was strong, smart, and super impressive, her personality somehow bigger than life-sized. She did not hold back on her views about studies or theories, whether negative or positive; and her comments were always incisive and insightful, and sometimes (often) challenging. Back then, experiencing her from a distance, she seemed, as I’ve heard some say softly, a bit scary. Later on, when I accepted a new position at MARCS Institute, Western Sydney University in 2004, I was somewhat surprised and definitely tickled to hear from my new boss Denis Burnham, the Director of MARCS, that she had told him I was an excellent choice and congratulated him for recruiting me. Not so many years later she became a colleague at MARCS as she retired from the Max Planck Institute in Nijmegen. I got to know her better, and she became less scary (most of the time). She had a wry sense of humor and was a lover of fine things (well-articulated logic, clever experimental designs, but also great wine, excellent restaurants, and a good ping pong game) as well as of good fun (especially with words!).

Since she passed away, I find myself thinking most about her inimitable and exceedingly savvy way of finding, supporting, and befriending promising junior scholars, higher degree students, and research assistants whose interests encompassed a wide range of psycholinguistic issues surrounding the spoken word. She was an incredibly staunch supporter of so many. She was unstinting in her encouragement, including toward some whose promise other colleagues may not have seen as clearly. At the same time, she was also intellectually exacting, always making it clear that she expected them to achieve their academic best and giving invaluable pointers on how to do just that. Anne was especially supportive of, and did much to promote aspiring women scholars, but her encouragement and nurturing extended to many young (and not so young) men as well. She fostered a strong sense of self-efficacy in her proteges, nurturing their own sense of confidence in reasoning and design, analysis and interpretation of findings, and in persuasive, coherent presentation in both written and spoken work. This aspect of Anne, as much as anything, distinguishes her as a unique and very special force in our discipline. It is one of the main reasons she has not only hugely shaped and influenced psycholinguistics, but also is so well-loved by her academic “offspring”. As an aside, she was sometimes wistful that because she had no children of her own, she had no grandchildren, but she certainly has many academic ones!

My first research collaboration with Anne started just a few years ago, on a project led by Denis Burnham, which began just as the COVID pandemic emerged and so was delayed but is now rolling along. We are investigating the very beginnings of phonological abstraction in early infancy, earlier than most have thought it could occur. Our optimism that we will nonetheless find abstraction in infants under 6 months was inspired by the work of Anne and her students Choi and Zhou on speech learning of Korean phonological contrasts by Korean early adoptees raised in the Netherlands without post-adoption exposure to the language. Our research team will sorely miss her continued contributions to that project and to the papers we will publish in her memory. But we will do our best to “channel” her wisdom about phonological abstraction!

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