Tribute on the occasion of the celebration of Noam Chomsky’s ninetieth birthday, April 2019
Noam gave linguistics life. Before him, it was a settled thing. It rested on various techniques, which, if carefully applied, promised to yield all that one could hope to know about language. The point of doing linguistics, one was taught, was not to challenge its techniques but to apply them, and there was a lot of hard work to do. Noam’s earliest work changed all of that. It became very much in point to challenge the assumptions of the field and to continue to challenge them; progress consisted of deepening its assumptions by testing them. Once that attitude took hold, linguistics became a field in motion.
Because he did this, those of us who followed Noam entered a field rich in new possibilities. We might ourselves contribute to its development by devising new ways to test and further its foundations, even at the beginnings of our careers. We might meaningfully enter into new debates with philosophers and psychologists, for the implications of Noam’s creativity were not limited to linguistics. There was an optimism in the air about what could be achieved, an optimism that Noam always encouraged personally in his classes and in his meetings with his students.
Noam has faced reaction, and, at least at first, he had few people on his side. But he battled his opponents, tirelessly, while at the same time the field that he had set in motion has grown. Because the field that he had created was now a living thing, the old debates evolved. His resistance has been a model to all of us. Noam’s ninetieth birthday has provided the occasion for us to thank him for his contributions to our lives, as he, and the field he set in motion, continue to thrive.