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D. Terence Langendoen

Published onApr 19, 2019
D. Terence Langendoen

I have known Noam for 2/3 of his life and 3/4 of mine. It all started in the fall of 1959, during the first semester of my junior year at MIT, when I went into the Course 21 office to inquire about the requirements for the major in humanities and science. Ruth Blender, the Director’s secretary, gave me the information, and then told me that I simply have to take a class with Professor Chomsky before I graduate, no matter what I finally decide about my major. I signed up for Noam’s logic class in the spring even though it met at the same time as the quantum mechanics class required for physics majors, which I then was also considering. After a couple of weeks alternating between the two, I dropped the physics class, declared a Course 21 major in philosophy and mathematics, and asked Noam at the end of the semester “I understand you’re a linguist. Can you tell me what that is?” He asked me if I had time that summer to read some books. I said yes, and he handed me a copy of Syntactic Structures and of Edward Sapir’s Language, and told me to see him in the fall and let him know what I thought. I was hooked! He agreed to supervise my undergraduate thesis and recommended that I apply to Penn and to MIT for grad school. I labored long and hard during my senior year on the problem he posed, which was to model a context-free parser by a finite-state transducer up to any finite degree of center embedding. As soon as I got my acceptance letter and support offer from Penn, I ran into his office in Building 20 to tell him the good news. He looked at me and said “You don’t want to go there.” I got my acceptance letter and support offer from MIT a week later.

How I got to write a dissertation under Noam’s direction on the London School of Linguistics, the theory of J. R. Firth and his followers, is another story. All I want to do here is mention his advice to me when the MIT Press accepted a revision of it for publication a few years later, which was to ask my wife to read the manuscript for passages that might be considered offensive and to tone them down.

Some fifteen years later, Paul Postal and I expounded a version of Jerry Katz’s realist foundation for linguistic theory in The Vastness of Natural Languages, maintaining that there are non-denumerably many expressions in all languages that exhibit unbounded coordinate compounding, and rejecting all constructivist (generative) accounts. Noam was far gentler with me than I suspect he was with Jerry and Paul in disputing our arguments, and I am grateful for that, and I hope that it will be possible, especially now that we are colleagues in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Arizona, to reconcile our differences.


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