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Wayne O’Neil

Professor of Linguistics, MIT

Published onApr 19, 2019
Wayne O’Neil

Thank you, Noam!

Eugene, Oregon: early 1963. A member of the Department of Psychology learns that Noam will give the keynote address at the Western Psychological Society in San Francisco. So a plan is hatched: Can we at Oregon get Noam to start his trip a day early so that he can spend the day at the University of Oregon? Fortunately this was before Noam is booked far into the future: He says yes.

Noam’s spring day at the university was like no other that I had ever spent, though I would later learn that it was a typical day for Noam: a public lecture; a smaller meeting with the language faculty and graduate students; lunch and dinner with lots of questions and answers; and an evening party at which Noam was supposed to be allowed to relax: He wasn’t.

The next morning, as I talked with Noam while he was waiting to be taken to the airport, I said that I needed to know more. Having been educated at the University of Wisconsin by American structuralists and lexicographers, I had begun to understand that there was a whole new world of linguistics, a world that I wanted to be part of.

Luckily for me, it was when MIT was not only planting its theory by growing its PhD program but also through its Visiting Scholar program. Noam said, Why not spend a year visiting MIT? What other answer but yes?

With Noam’s help, I applied for an ACLS Study Fellowship, a grant that was meant to provide partial support for young PhDs changing fields. (Morris would come up with the rest of the year’s support.) I successfully argued that that the field I knew had undergone a sea change, which qualified me for such a grant.

So off to MIT for the academic year 1964–1965, which like a day with Noam at Oregon was like no other year I had ever experienced, but have experienced year after year ever since.

And I didn’t return to Oregon: I accepted an appointment at Harvard, before returning to MIT in 1968. My year at MIT has turned into fifty plus years.

It is hard to imagine what my intellectual life would be like, not to mention my political one, had Noam not thrown me that lifeline in spring 1963.

Noam, for this I am forever grateful.

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