Honorary Doctor Mary Beckman
Honorary Doctor Mary Beckman

Linguist Mary Beckman receives honorary doctorate

Mary Beckman, a professor emeritus of Linguistics at the Ohio State University, is set to receive an honorary doctorate from Radboud University. Her groundbreaking research has changed the way in which linguistics study speech. Beckman will be presented with her honorary doctorate during the celebration of the university’s 100th Dies Natalis, or anniversary, on 17 October 2023.

“Mary Beckman has changed the way we look at and study speech”, says Mirjam Ernestus, Beckman’s honorary promotor and fellow professor of Linguistics. “Traditionally, linguists studied the physical aspects of speech separately from formal theories about how sounds, syllables and words are organised. Beckman argued that the two actually influence each other and therefore cannot be studied separately,” explains Ernestus. 

In addition, she did groundbreaking work in advancing our insights in how speech utterances are structured, on the tone level, the word level, and the sound level.” 

Academic achievements

Over the course of her lengthy career as a linguist, Mary Beckman has earned a distinguished reputation as a scholar of prosody, a branch of linguistics that focusses on the study of the rhythm, melody and intonation in spoken languages. Beckman: “I have worked with many colleagues and students to analyse speech melodies and how they are coordinated with vocal gestures to encode hierarchies of language-specific phonological structures, from sequences of intonational phrases down to strings of consonants and vowels. We have looked at how prosodic patterns differ across language varieties and how these differences might be related to diachronic change.”

Beckman also developed an annotation system that is used worldwide in large databases such as the Corpus of Spontaneous Japanese. Additionally, she has created and analysed a multi-lingual database of child language productions of word-initial consonants. Most recently, her research has even extended beyond the human realm. “I have collaborated with primatologists to begin to look at the structure of vocalisations produced by our closest non-human primate relatives,” explains Beckman.

Although Mary Beckman has never been associated with Radboud University herself, she has benefited greatly from the insights of fellow linguists in Nijmegen. “Given the huge scope of our branch of science, advances in linguistics are never accomplished by individual linguists working in isolation,” she says. “My own work illustrates this very well. For example, the work on gestural coordination between consonants and vowels at the base of the prosodic hierarchy is very much in keeping with the work on acoustic reduction by Mirjam Ernestus and Lou Boves and colleagues. And the most recent work on vocal productions by Pan troglodytes [Chimpanzees] has been shaped in part by the differences between the prosodic organisation of vocal gestures in spoken languages and results on the prosodic organisation of manual gestures in signed languages studied by Onno Crasborn and his colleagues.” 

On top of her revolutionary research, Beckman is a shining example in how she trains and supports junior researchers.

Honorary doctorate

An honorary doctorate (doctoratus honoris causa) is a doctorate awarded to an individual who has made an exceptional achievement. This may be an exceptional contribution to science, as is the case for Mary Beckman, but it may also be an exceptional contribution to society. For instance, in 2022, Adriaan van Dis received an honorary doctorate from Radboud University in honor of his whole literary oeuvre. Next to professor Mary Beckman, five others will receive an honorary doctorate during the celebration of the university’s 100th Dies Natalis on 17 October 2023.

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