Noted for: the modern science of language acquisition; word learning; language and thought; power and solidarity in language; the “tip of the tongue” and “flashbulb memory” effects; syntheses of social psychology
Roger W. Brown was Professor of Social Psychology at Harvard University from 1962 to 1994. Today Brown is acknowledged as the founder of developmental psycholinguistics and as a pioneer in the study of how children acquire language.
Brown first came to Harvard in 1952 as an Instructor in Social Psychology. From 1953-1957 he served as an Assistant Professor of Social Psychology, while initiating his revolutionary investigation of language acquisition, beginning with a theoretical paper on how young children discover the meanings of words. Brown’s first book, Words and Things, was published in 1957. Entertaining and insightful, the book examined what was known about language at the time, including the first modern studies of the relationship of language and thought. Words and Things is still in print today.
After teaching at MIT for five years, Brown returned to Harvard as Professor of Social Psychology in 1962. He then began to document the acquisition of language in children by recording and transcribing their developing speech. This groundbreaking longitudinal study focused on three children, the now-famous “Adam,” “Eve,” and “Sarah.” Dozens of fundamental discoveries about the time course stages of language development originated from that project, and the graduate students involved in the project were major figures in the field for decades after. In 1973 Brown’s findings were published in First Language: The Early Stages. The book has been cited in over 700 scientific publications.
Brown’s interests ranged broadly. His books Social Psychology (1965) and Social Psychology The Second Edition (1985), though marketed as textbooks, were witty and original syntheses. Two papers in memory, “The Tip of the Tongue Effect” (with David McNeill) and “Flashbulb Memories” (with James Kulik) became the classic studies of each phenomenon. Later works explored music and emotion, the phenomenon of politeness, and differences between film and literary media.
Brown’s chair was “The John Linsdsley Professorship in Memory of William James,” and his elegant, personal, and witty style of writing was sometimes compared to that of James. In a 1990 essay in A History of Psychology in Autobiography, and in his 1997 memoir Against My Better Judgment, Brown poignantly described his life as a gay man in the decades when homosexuality was hidden and stigmatized.
Brown was a beloved mentor, and in 1988 a group of his former students published The Development of Language and Language Researchers: Essays in Honor of Roger Brown. Roger Brown is listed at number 34 on the American Psychological Association’s list of the 100 most eminent psychologists of the 20th century.
Eminent psychologists of the 20th century. (July/August, 2002). Monitor on Psychology, 33(7), p.29.
Harvard University Library Online Archival Search Information System (2007, February 26). Brown, Roger, 1925- Papers of Roger W. Brown: an inventory. Retrieved on November 28, 2007, from http://oasis.lib.harvard.edu/oasis/deliver/~hua14002
Pinker, S. (1998) Obituary: Roger Brown. Cognition, 66, 199-213.