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Rolf Noyer

MIT PhD in Linguistics, 1992

Published onApr 19, 2019
Rolf Noyer

In the summer of 1988, before I started at MIT, my undergraduate roommate and I were looking for a place to live and we heard that our Harvard classmate Harry Chomsky, whom we both knew, was in the same position. So the three of us ended up living together for a year in one of those dreary Somerville triple-decker apartments that now, I am told, have been refurbished as condos and sell for quite a princely sum. At one point, then, Noam and Carol paid us a visit to see how their son’s living arrangements had turned out. After seeing Harry’s room, they came back to my room to say hello. The academic year had not begun, and I had never in fact had a conversation with Noam before, so I felt nervous. What kind of initial impression would I make? I apologized for the mess, since there were piles of books scattered around my futon on the floor. But then to my horror I noticed that on the top of the pile of books nearest the bed was Meillet’s Introduction à l’étude des langues indo- européennes. So I quickly put that book on the bottom. But the next book was Quine’s Word and Object. Oh no, I thought, that’s probably even worse! I quickly buried that book as well. At last, Lectures on Government and Binding popped to the top. I breathed a big sigh of relief, and stared up sheepishly. But then I saw that Noam was smiling and looking on very benignly, and all three of us laughed.

Of the many stories Harry told me about growing up with Noam as a father, two have stood out in my mind over the years. Harry had started the PhD program at MIT in mathematics, with a specialization in logic. So I asked Harry, how did your father react when you decided to study logic in particular? He answered, “Oh, he supported the idea. In fact, he said ‘I would have been a logician if only I had been smart enough.’”

The second story concerned an occasion when Noam suffered some sort of minor injury to his hand (I believe) while out at their house on Cape Cod. When they arrived at a local hospital to get treatment, Noam gave his name to the nurse doing the in-take paperwork. The nurse said “Noam Chomsky? Really? Are you related to the FAMOUS Noam Chomsky?” To which Noam replied simply, “Yes, I am.” Undaunted, the nurse continued, “REALLY?! So HOW are you related to him, then?” To which Noam, apparently still hoping to avoid the issue, but unable to actually lie, was forced to reply: “I am related to Noam Chomsky by the identity relation.”

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