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Donca Steriade

Published onApr 19, 2019
Donca Steriade

I discovered linguistics in the form of Saussure’s Cours in the early 1970s, as a freshman classicist in Bucharest. No 20th-century work by a bourgeois linguist was being taught, but Saussure had been a classicist, so an exception was made for him and us on those grounds.

After the Cours, I asked for other readings along the same lines. The answer came that there was in fact a linguist, named Noam Chomsky, whose work was somehow related, but that I should not rush, because nobody in Bucharest understands him. No book titles or other names were mentioned then.

A couple of years later, I was given a reading list in 20th-century linguistics. It was chronological, so Hjelmslev, Guillaume, Hockett, and others came first. I followed the prescribed order, not moving to the next item on the list until I fully despaired of understanding the one before. By the time I reached the late 1950s my faith had dimmed that I would ever sympathize with the questions of the post-Saussureans.

But in May 1975 this list got me to Syntactic Structures. I read it in two days, I could follow its logic, I could imagine what research it might lead to. Based on my low performance with its predecessors, I feared a mirage, some misunderstanding. By then a decent university library was open to me, so I immediately tried Cartesian Linguistics and Language and Mind. Surprise, again: this stuff is deep, but transparent! (I tried Aspects too that summer, and polemical reads, like Noam and Morris’s post-SPE debate with Fred Householder. Those had to be postponed.)

I abandoned the list and went hunting for like-minded books directly on the library shelves. Noam’s writings opened up for me introductions to syntax (Akmajian and Heny, then Bach), phonology (Dell, then Sommerstein), and the beginnings of generative historical linguistics, in a Kiparsky book review. It was the pursuit of ideas laid out in Syntactic Structures that made those works intelligible, gave me my first real glimpse of linguistics as a field, and rescued me from life as an Indo-Europeanist.

By the late 1970s, now in Cambridge, I acquired a distinct education from Noam’s public lectures on the US involvement in Central America, and then from preaching to my family the American Power and the New Mandarins. More on that endeavor in the centenary book.

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