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Kenneth Safir

Tribute to Noam on his 90th birthday

Published onApr 19, 2019
Kenneth Safir
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Tribute to Noam on his 90th birthday

Forty years ago we celebrated Noam’s 50th birthday at a surprise birthday party in Building 20. I was a second-year graduate student then and most of the preparations were in the hands of the graduate students, including the food and entertainment. Tim Stowell and I made a now long-lost videotape of the event which included a musical piece performed by David Pesetsky and Ray Jackendoff, an interpretive dance based on Noam’s gestures while lecturing by Natalie van Bockstaele, which both charmed and puzzled, and a re-enactment of the famous debate between Noam and the ape Koko, a performance by Elan Dresher, Amy Weinberg, and Norbert Hornstein as Koko that brought down the house. I have to say that event does not feel like yesterday. It was rather the beginning for me of 40 years of Noam’s mentorship and friendship that has been one of the great joys and honors of my life. From linguistics to politics and back again, Noam has been a responsive and patient correspondent, even when we disagree, and I am sure many of you have the same experience of him. For a few summers in the mid-2000s, I had the good fortune to coincide with Noam in Wellfleet for our vacation days and on a couple of occasions it was wonderful to see him relaxing a bit with a vodka and tonic with various members of his family around him. My wife Susan ran into him at the bicycle shop and they commiserated about the difficulty of getting young people to wear helmets while biking. These moments enabled me to see Noam in his mode as an ordinary citizen, which in the shadow of all he has achieved, I could not always imagine. He is larger than life, but he is also in it.

When I first arrived as a student at MIT, Morris told me that my training would not only be intellectual, but moral. Actually, he had an odd way of being gently menacing about it, so I would not forget. I don’t know how well I profited from all I learned on that score from Morris, Ken, and Noam, but by example, they all kept me aware that an intellectual life is empty unless it has a moral dimension. Noam, just by being who he is, by never giving in, as I do, to a lack of energy, has always kept the moral dimension of academic life alive in my thinking and in my daily preoccupations.

Noam can be blamed, however, for feeding the cravings of those with a linguistics addiction. Every few years, as I think I might take a rest from new thinking, Noam comes up with something that draws me back in, either because I think he is finally on the wrong path, or because once again I feel he has found the right one. By staying young in his thinking, he has kept me young in mine (or in my own mind!), and for that, among many other things, I will thank him all my life.

Happy 90th, Noam! Looking forward to the centennial.

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