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M. Rita Manzini

Published onApr 19, 2019
M. Rita Manzini

A set of lucky circumstances (Scuola Normale in Pisa, the exchange with Ecole Normale in Paris, meeting Jean-Roger Vergnaud) catapulted me into the MIT Department of Linguistics and Philosophy in late 1979. For me, MIT meant Chomsky, and he was nice enough to act as my supervisor. I think the most fitting tribute to him is the obvious one: that he not only gave the initial impulse to formal linguistics several decades ago, but he kept shaping it to this day. I am not referring to work setting linguistics in the contexts of human cognition and evolution. I am referring to specifically linguistic notions concerning the architecture of grammar and the relation between the computational components and the interfaces, as well as the internal shape of the computational component (merge, labeling, phases, probe-goal mechanisms, Minimality, in current parlance—but all theoretical constructs that have been tested and moulded over decades). Nobody else has been able to provide equally powerful and lasting contributions to what I take to be the core of the discipline. His students and colleagues opened two main avenues for the verification of these constructs, namely psycholinguistic research (mainly into acquisition) and of course descriptive work on natural language phenomena—linguistics in the traditional sense of the term.

Psycholinguists, working with large populations and complex experimental setups perhaps have a better appreciation of the fact that empirical results are to be gauged over a certain temporal span. This appreciation is not equally obvious in linguistic work—which nevertheless also converges toward its conclusions only by successive attempts along certain well established lines of attack. In a suitably extended perspective, there is no doubt that Chomskyan theoretical constructs have received important confirmation from descriptive work, in the sense that they have led to significant improvement in our ability to actually predict (i.e., understand) patterns, including variation patterns. This work would not have been possible if Chomsky was not also a very good teacher. In one of the rare occasions when I was back at MIT, in what was then the Thursday class, I realized that he was not simply following his stream of ideas, but was taking the time to impart a clear sense of perspective on what he himself calls leading ideas and matters of execution. One needs to have insight and clarity of mind to make the distinction, but also generosity to (try and) share it.

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