As a student in the program at MIT, I was mostly working on issues in phonology, and since this was the period (late 1960s) when Noam was becoming much more focused on syntax than on phonology, we didn’t interact a great deal. One incident does strike me, though, as a case where his help was invaluable. Indeed, I might not have finished the dissertation I did without it.
I was working on the principle that just because we could find evidence that phonological rules had to apply in a sequence, it didn’t follow that the ordering relation over these rules was necessarily a linear one. I had developed examples that seemed to show that the sequence of rule applications in a particular language might violate all of the conditions of irreflexivity, antisymmetry, and transitivity, conditions that define a linear ordering in mathematics. Morris, with whom I was working, was having none of it, and kept trying to persuade me of the error of my ways. One day he decided I needed to be brought into line: “Let’s go see what Noam thinks about this.” It was clear that I was being taken into the principal’s office.
So we went next door, where Noam was in, and Morris had me present my examples and the conclusions I wanted to draw from them, while he sat on the side waiting for me to get my comeuppance. After thinking about it for a bit, though, Noam’s reaction was “Yeah, that sounds right,” to Morris’s visible consternation. Noam did point out that I was making a mistake in describing the state of affairs I was arguing for as a “partial ordering,” and suggested instead that I call it a “local ordering,” which I did from then on. I thus owe the label associated with my work in phonology to him, but more importantly, I think, I owe Noam for effectively giving encouragement for me to follow out my ideas, even when those were somewhat incompatible with his own work.