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Thomas Bever

Spoken introduction to Noam for a general audience about to view a film about him

Published onApr 19, 2019
Thomas Bever

Spoken introduction to Noam for a general audience about to view a film about him

Noam is well known as a social critic, with a lot of his ideas percolating into public discourses; e.g., Manufacturing Consent, which developed the theme of the media as “propagandists” rather than news conveyers, naturally constrained by what their audience will accept and their advertisers will pay for.

But, Noam is also a brilliant linguist, who has reshaped and led the field since the early 1950s. Much less is known about what he has actually done and created scientifically.

So, let me give you a few scientific insights from Noam.

Consider all these sentences and more:

Tom is introducing Noam; Noam is being introduced by Tom; It’s Tom who is introducing Noam; It’s Tom that Noam is being introduced by; What Tom is doing is introducing Noam; What Noam is doing is being introduced by Tom; Tom’s introducing Noam is happening now; what is happening now is Tom’s introducing Noam . . .

These sentences share an inner core of thematic structure: Tom is the agent; Noam is the object; the action is introducing . . .

In the early 1950s Noam began 70 years of investigation of a structural/computational model of how all these superficially different sentences derive from an inner STRUCTURAL core, not just a shared meaning.

He introduced the concept of syntax as a computational engine that takes internal thoughts and schemas that are made up of connected but unordered parts, and squeezes them out into the open in a serially structured order.

He emphasized that the engine is purely syntactic, distinct from our experience of meaning.

Consider this famous sequence:

Green sleep colorless furiously ideas.

That does not have any coherent proposition. Now consider the same words rearranged:

Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.

This sequence seems to represent a proposition, albeit one full of semantic contradictions. The reason we can at least recognize that it is a proposition (albeit without much meaning) is that it is a sentence.

So what Noam did with this very simple five-word sentence is teach us that syntax is a computational engine that works independently from meanings.

So we can study the computational engine on its own terms.

The result of this study has broad implications for the nature of human mental abilities; how much is actually inborn in us as part of our biology. How language relates to other cognitive domains.

Now to unify Noam the linguist with Noam the social critic.

In each domain, Noam is an analyst who ferrets out hidden sources of what we experience mentally and politically.

That is, following St. Paul’s observation about surface vs. real world, he explores . . . “the evidence of things unseen.”

And here he is.

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