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Hagit Borer

Published onApr 19, 2019
Hagit Borer

I first heard Chomsky’s name in the library of the Linguistics Department of the Hebrew University in the fall of 1973. I had just returned from a year of wandering around Europe, where I was, for the first time, exposed to a rich array of foreign languages, leading me to think that just possibly, linguistics might be something I want to do. Seeking to learn more, I struck a conversation with a present student in that library, who proudly informed me that: “we don’t do that Chomsky stuff around here . . .”

In the end, I didn’t join the linguistics department in HU. Not because I knew better.

Rather, they required that I come in with some prior knowledge of Classical Greek (or Latin, or Geez), and the Greek teacher categorically refused to allow me into the class 3 weeks into the term, claiming I would ever catch up. I therefore enrolled in a French class, where the irregular verbs and the omitted consonants were a bitch, but the grammar was a feast. Come next fall, I returned to my Literary Theory course at Tel-Aviv University, and took up linguistics as a minor.

Now, in Tel-Aviv University they were, as it turns out, doing that “Chomsky stuff,” and so I took my introductory course with Robert Lees, and my first syntax class with Nomi Erteschik, and I was loving every minute of it. Going to MIT, from that point, became a bit of a fantasy, one I didn’t really think I had a chance of fulfilling.

By the spring of 1977 I was getting ready to leave again, for a mixture of personal and political reasons. In the interim, I had met Tanya Reinhart, who strongly encouraged me to go to MIT. It was too late to apply, but go anyway, she said. Sit in on classes, do the assignments, convince them you are good enough! And so, I withdrew my meagre savings, sold my piano and departed, against the backgrounds of incredulous friends and family who all thought I was delusional.

At the other end of that particular journey was the linguistics department at MIT, and a sharp transition from the hippyish, fringe political activist that I was (note the bracketing paradox), to an environment in which the heady brew—and a very heady one it was—consisted of Noam Chomsky’s vision, and even more so, at least for syntax, of his intellectual style, both of which have endured and largely mark generative grammar as the school of thought that it is.

The metaphor that most aptly describes my own experience is that sometime in the fall of 1977, I discovered that I had wings. I was not aware of having ever used them before, and I sure as hell couldn’t fly, but there was the promise there, that with lots of practice and lots training, maybe one day, I will.

And so the training commenced, and with it, the fledgling hopping, higher and somewhat higher, with short flights, and precipitous early—and not so early—falls, especially during appointments with Noam (but never broken bones), with recoveries, and retries, until, I do think, I did learn to fly, to chart my course, and to finally hold my own in linguistic debates with Noam, an achievement I hold particularly dear.

It was not always tough love. Possibly most indicative of this was the trip to Gaza, Palestine, I shared with Noam in fall of 2012, along with 7 more linguists/activists. It was an opportunity to see a side of Noam that I had not had the occasion to witness before, involving kindness, consideration, deep humor, and true willingness to share and to befriend. I feel particularly fortunate to have been part of that trip, to a large measure because it exposed me to that side of Noam’s personality, complementing the many intellectual attributes which I have known and admired for a long time.

Thank you, Noam, for that heady brew, still going strong, of your linguistic vision and for teaching me how to think, for the kindness you have shown the fledgling that I was in fall of 1977, and later, for the joy of your company during the trip to Gaza, and for so much more!

Happy Birthday!

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