Chomsky, Noam (1928 - )
Linguist, lecturer and political activist, Chomksy was the founder of transformational generative grammar, which is an original system of linguistic analysis that revolutionized linguistics. Besides being an eminent linguist and a senior member of MIT, Noam Chomsky is known for his incisive analyses of society, economics and world politics.
Abraham Noam Chomsky was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (USA) on 7 December 1928. His parents were Hebrew teachers, and he was one of the two sons of about the only Jewish family who lived in a strongly anti-Semitic neighbourhood of Irish and German Catholics.
When he was 12 years old, Chomsky attended a progressive experimental school, where pupils were not graded and there was no such thing as school competitions or division into good and bad students.
His first piece of writing was an editorial for the school newspaper about the fall of Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War. At the age of 12, he wrote a history of the Spanish war, which “actually bemoaned the emergence of fascism.”
His uncle had a newsstand at a New York subway exit, which became a favourite meeting-place for many immigrants of European origin in the 1930s. Young Chomsky spent many hours there participating in lively discussions on current affairs, where he also learned a lot about Freud’s work.
He worked as a Hebrew teacher to pay for his higher education. But, after a couple of years, he lost the interest and left university, although he did not put an end to his participation in leftist politics and increased his commitment to Zionism.
He attended advanced courses taught by Zellig Harris, a professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania with whom he shared political interests. The first thing that he read about linguistics were the first proofs of Harris’s book titled Structural linguistics methods, published several years later.
At Harris’s suggestion, Chomsky began to attend philosophy and mathematics classes, subjects that were new to but at the same time fascinated him. Thus, he went back to university and studied for a linguistics degree, graduating from the University of Pennsylvania. One of his philosophy masters was Nelson Goodman, who introduced him to the Harvard University Society of Fellows.
In 1949, he married with the linguist Carol Schatz with whom he had three children.
In 1953, he went to Israel and spent a few months on a kibbutz, which for him represented a libertarian community heading for success.
From 1951 to 1955, he was a junior fellow at Harvard University Society of Fellows, during which he completed his PhD thesis titled Transformational analysis, part of which was published as Syntactic structures in 1957.
In 1955, he received his PhD in Linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania. His thesis was part of a book that was completed in 1956. However, it was so unconventional at the time that it was not published until 1975, and then only partially as Logical structure of linguistic theory.
The very same year, he was given a researcher position at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and was appointed professor of the Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics in 1961. From 1966 to 1976 he held the Ferrari P. Ward Professorship of Modern Languages and Linguistics and in 1976 he was appointed Institute Professor.
Chomsky believes that language is a consequence of innate human ability. Therefore, the purpose of linguistics is to determine which properties are universal and establish the “universal grammar” that could explain the broad spectrum that includes all possible human languages. His language analyses are based on the basic sentences that are developed and end in a variety of syntactic combinations using a set of rules that he formulates. Phonological rules governing pronunciation are applied after applying the string of syntactic rules.
His most important publications on linguistics are: Syntactic Structures (1957), Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (1965), The Sound Pattern of English (1968; with Morris Halle), Language and Thought (1972), The Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory (1975), Reflections on Language (1975) and Language and Responsibility (1979).
In October 1967, Chomsky took part in the protests in front of the Pentagon and the Justice Department, for which he was jailed.
Chomsky has been actively committed to politics since the late 1960s when he wrote a lengthy series of books, articles and pamphlets expressing his views.
Bhomsky’s political writings include: American Power and the New Mandarins (1969), The Guardians of Freedom (1990; with Edward S. Herman), Fear of Democracy (1992), Chomsky and Globalization (2004) and Middle East Illusions (2004).
In 1996, he wrote an article, The Responsibility of Intellectuals, which was published in The New York Review of Books and was highly acclaimed around the world, although it set North American intellectuals against him.
He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Science and societies all over the world. He has received numerous awards and is doctor honoris causa of many institutions.
He is still a professor of linguistics at MIT today and travels widely to lecture on and debate his ideas.