Penelope Brown (*1944)

Source of the picture:


  • Anthropological linguistics

Research Interests

  • Language, cognition, and culture
  • Language acquisition in its social/cultural context;
  • Linguistic politeness

Notable Ideas


  • Politeness research: Paul Grice, Robin Lakoff, Stephen Levinson
  • Analysis of conversational structure and interaction: Harvey Sacks, Emmanuel Schegloff, Erving Goffman, John Gumperz, Paul Drew
  • Spatial language and spatial cognition in Tzeltal (Mayan): Stephen Levinson, David Wilkins, Dedre Gentner, Melissa Bowerman
  • Child language acquisition and language socialization: Melissa Bowerman and Dan Slobin (crosslinguisitic approaches to language acquisition), Elena Lieven (methodology), Paul Kay, Charles Fillmore and Adele Goldberg (Construction Grammar), Elinor Ochs and Bambi Schieffelin (language socialization)


  • Brown's work on politeness (Brown and Levinson 1987) has had a wide influence across many sub-disciplines of linguistics, psychology, interactional sociology and communications.
  • Brown's work on crosslinguistic conversation and interaction is of relevance to students of interaction from various disciplines: it brings evidence from non-western non-urban speech communities (the Tzeltal Maya of Tenejapa, Chiapas, Mexico, and the Rossel Islanders of Papua New Guinea) to bear on claims of universals of social interaction.
  • Brown and Levinson's work on spatial language and cognition in Tzeltal has had an impact on the research topic of language and space, and more broadly, on cognitive scientists interested in the relationship between language and thought.
  • Her work on child language acquisition has influenced researchers interested in the acquisition of nouns vs. verbs in early child language (e.g., Dedre Gentner, Twila Tardif), and on the impact of cultural practices in childrearing on children's acquisition of language.

Academic Life

Penelope Brown (born on 2 November 1944, in Summit, New Jersey) received her B.A. in Psychology in June 1965 and her M.A. in Anthropology and Linguistics, in August 1970. In June 1979 she was granted a the Department of Anthropology for her dissertation 'Language, interaction, and sex roles in a Mayan community: a study of politeness and the position of women'.

Brown has done field research in the Mayan Indian community of Tenejapa, Chiapas, Mexico, in northern Queensland, Australia and on Rossel Island, Papua New Guinea. Regarding her teaching appointments, Brown has taught at the following institutions: Carlton Collge (Northfield, Minnesota), University of Cambridge, Australian National University (Canberra, Australia), Sydney University (Australia), Stanford University (California, USA), Freie Universität Berlin (Germany).

Penelope Brown is currently a leading scientist at The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen, the Netherlands, an institution concentrating on fundamental research.

Main Publications

  • Levinson, S.C. & Brown, P. (2003). "Emmanuel Kant chez les Tenejapans: L'Anthropologie comme philosophie empirique" (translated by Claude Vandeloise). In Langues et Cognition (239-278). Lavoisier.

  • Brown, P. (2003). "Position and motion in Tzeltal frog stories: The acquisition of narrative style". In S. Strömqvist and L. Verhoeven (Eds.), Relating events in narrative: Typological and contextual perspectives (37-57). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

  • Bowerman, M., Brown, P., Eisenbeiss, S., Narasimhan, S. and Slobin, D. (2002). "Putting things in places: Developmental consequences of linguistic typology." CLRF plenary talk, April 12, 2002. Proceedings of the 31st Child Language Research Forum, Stanford, 2002. Available from the CSLI Publications website:

  • Brown, P. (2002). "Language as a model for Culture: Lessons from the cognitive sciences". In B. King & R. Fox (Eds.), Anthropology beyond culture (169-192). Oxford: Berg.

Categories: People