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Bob Berwick

Revolutionary New Ideas Appear Infrequently

Published onApr 19, 2019
Bob Berwick

Revolutionary New Ideas Appear Infrequently

Everyone who’s met Noam has their own when-I-first-met-Noam story. Since it’s Noam, it’s often a when-I-first-argued-with-Noam story. In fact, that would be the best birthday for Noam—a world that’s been transformed into one where everyone loves to argue to reveal the truth. In any event, everyone especially remembers when-I-first-won-an argument-with-Noam, because usually that never happens.

For what it’s worth then, here’s my own when-I-first-won-an-argument-with-Noam story—important not in itself, but more because what it says about Noam and Noam’s standards for scientific inquiry and the lessons he taught me and many others.

While writing my thesis, I wondered, gee, “if language syntax can be constrained by parsing and learning, then what about a language’s sounds?” I started looking. I ran across Mary Louise Kean’s 1974 MIT dissertation listing the sounds systems for the world’s languages—some, like Hawaiian, use very few distinct sounds (about 18 or so) while most languages use many more (English, 36, Mandarin Chinese, about 35; Lithuanian, 77). Why? I thought that maybe the order in which kids learned the sounds mattered—it accounted for Kean’s data. But, there was one big hitch. Looking at the first few pages of Noam’s Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, I realized that Noam had already written that you could just as well assume that language acquisition was “instantaneous”—there was no scientific “added value” in assuming that kids learned step by step. Gulp. Gulp. Noam disagreed with me—or rather, my idea!

Well, there was nothing to be done. I already had made an appointment, scarce as hen’s teeth. I bolted on my armor. I marched across Vassar Street to Building 20 and up the stairs to Noam’s office. I sat down and unveiled my proposal. No surprise, four words into my spiel, Noam jumped in. “Can’t be right, doesn’t rise to the level of lunacy—makes about as much sense as the sentence ‘colorless green ideas sleep furiously,’ my example of a syntactically correct, but semantically meaningless, sentence.” I blanched. Restarted. Noam interrupted. On it went. More than an hour later, still mumbling, “You see, if we relax the assumption that acquisition is instantaneous, then we can get a better explanation of why we see the language sound systems that we see and not others. . . .” And then—a surprise. Noam stopped talking. A shy smile crept over his face. “You probably know that other nonsense sentence I gave to contrast with “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously, right?” I nodded, “Sure, the same sentence backwards, ‘furiously sleep ideas green colorless.’ Semantic and syntactic rubbish.” “Well, he replied, “Not many recall the third sentence that went along with those two, one that was OK syntactically and also OK semantically. Maybe you?” I shook my head, No. “Revolutionary new ideas appear infrequently,” Noam grinned. Oh. Oh. I finally got it. Thrilled, I ran out the door, and down the fire escape steps the back way.

Noam had once more handed me a priceless lesson by example: if you’re really committed to being rational, then when somebody gives you a solid, knock-down argument against what you once believed, no matter how firmly you believed it, you’re obliged to change your mind. Maybe that’s why Noam wrote about “ideal speaker-hearers” in Aspects—because he’s one himself. For nearly a century, he’s treated everyone equally and fairly that way, each individual person as valuable as the next—whether, the single mother who drove up from Kentucky one day with her kids, unannounced, to talk to him several hours even though she didn’t have an appointment—to Bono. I’ve long forgotten the details that convinced Noam that day, but I’ll never forget the mensch that convinced me how to do science with clarity, and the lessons about how to treat everyone with grace. Yes, Noam, revolutionary new ideas do appear infrequently, and I and so many others are grateful to your own revolution.

thomas bever: Bob’s experience prompts me to recall my own corresponding one. As a grad student, I thought that syntax was a cult phenomenon, so I characterized myself as a phonologist. But along the way, one summer at MITRE corporation (where Noam was ensconced reading proof on Aspects), I was assigned an office with Haj Ross and Peter Rosenbaum, with nothing in particular to do….so I took up syntax and its relation to semantics as a temporary hobby. Peter and I invented a variant of what was later called Generative Semantics, and promptly rejected it as inevitably inviting The Encyclopedia to make it work. In the course of that I stumbled on the problem, of how to make sure semantic analysis at a higher syntactic level (eg “matrix” sentences in that day) takes into account modifications at a lower level (eg relative clauses). I decided to try my hand at talking with Noam about the problem. At first, he refused to admit it as a problem, then as a problem that had been solved….but I was dumb, or as stubborn as he, and persisted….finally at what became the end of the conversation, he said, “well, you do have a point”….. I dined out on that for at least a month. Years later, e.g., now, I recalled this to Noam, thinking in retrospect that probably he just had wanted to end the conversation because he wasn’t getting anywhere with me. No, he said, it was and still is an important problem….well, ok, I’m not dining out on it any more; but it is still a thrill to have Noam agree with one, isn’t it?