To Noam, On His 90th Birthday
This appeared earlier in an informal volume edited by Michael Schiffmann
Last year, the Boston Red Sox won the World Series by totally dominating the National League champions.
LA Dodgers 4 games to 1. This was on top of a season in which the Red Sox won a franchise record 108 games, moving past the 1912 team whose record stood for over 100 years.
I mention this because Noam is known to have sat in the stands at Fenway Park once in a while during his time at MIT. Given his ambivalence about sports in general, it’s not clear whether he is a die-hard fan (probably not) and elated at how the Red Sox completely dominated its opponents in post-season play (unlikely). Especially now that he spends most of his time in Tucson, he may not even know, but he should feel happy that a team that he took the time to go and watch had such a great season.
I also mention baseball because Noam hit the first and, when one takes into account impact on other fields, possibly the only home run in the generative study of human language. In his 1956 work, “Three models for the description of language,” he proposed what came to be called the Chomsky Hierarchy, which is a containment hierarchy of classes of formal grammars from the simplest to the most powerful. With it, he proved that human language cannot be modeled by a simple formal system such as a regular grammar. Crack! He hit it out of the park!
The Chomsky Hierarchy has had a profound influence on computer science, where it gave support to the development of recursively defined concepts. And the idea that human language requires something more powerful than a regular grammar has been the basis for some of the most important studies on the neuroscience of human language. Fitch and Hauser, in a 2004 Science article, showed that monkeys could learn patterns modeled on a regular grammar, but once they encounter patterns higher on the Chomsky Hierarchy—what they called Phrase Structure Grammar—their comprehension breaks down completely. Friederici and colleagues showed (e.g., 2006 PNAS article)—in some cases using stimuli modeled on Fitch and Hauser’s experiment—that stimuli based on simple or complex grammars activate different parts of the brain, pointing to a neuroscientific basis for the Chomsky Hierarchy.
The idea that human language can only be modeled by a grammar more powerful than a regular grammar forms the foundation for much of generative study of language even today. Topics that excite linguists, such as syntactic movement, ellipsis, agreement, and case marking, are often expressed in a system that assumes some relation at a distance, which is most readily captured by a system more powerful than a regular grammar.
I became interested in linguistics as an undergraduate student when I learned that human language has transformations that can relate two items at a distance, sometimes over a surprisingly long distance. I have no doubt that it is Noam’s home run that got me hooked on the field, and that is why I’ve committed my entire career to it. I am a die-hard fan.
He continues to profoundly influence my work. My 2010 Linguistic Inquiry monograph, Why Agree? Why Move? would not have seen the light of day had it not been for crucial suggestions Noam made along the way as I was struggling to understand the role of agreement across languages. I acknowledged his contribution in the Preface of that work:
This work began with a series of discussions with Noam Chomsky over several years about how to make a minimalist-type approach relevant to languages that do not have phi-feature agreement—Japanese, for example. I am grateful to him for these discussions and to many key suggestions that pushed the project forward at critical junctures.
Until Noam moved to Arizona, we had offices next to each other in the Stata Center. With all the activities surrounding his office, in linguistics, politics, and whatnot, his office felt so much more powerful than mine. It was sort of a Chomsky Hierarchy of offices. His was a Turing machine and mine was at the lower end of the totem pole. I cherish those moments when he would step into my office for a moment while the camera crew was setting up equipment in his office for another of a long line of interviews. It didn’t feel so much as one of the most influential thinkers of our times dropped in as Babe Ruth coming by to say hi before going off to hit another home run.
I can’t thank Noam enough for creating a field that gave me and other formal linguists a career in which we’ve all had our own turn at making discoveries.
Although they aren’t home runs by a long shot, they are little gems that excite us and sustain us to keep going.
Happy 90th! Hit another one out of the park!