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Susan Rothstein

Published onApr 19, 2019
Susan Rothstein

I came to MIT in the fall of 1979, and so am very much part of the LGB (Lectures on Government and Binding) generation. We listened as Noam developed the material in class, and read the book in manuscript, aware of the privilege that this was. At the beginning, I was too shy and too conscious of my own ignorance to dare to go to Noam’s Thursday afternoon lectures, but after a while, the total silence and the absence of people in Building 20 during his classes made me realise that I was missing something important, and I started going along with everyone else, resigning myself to not understanding a lot, and responding to the challenge of trying to follow him wherever he went. For me, LGB was, and still remains, inspiring. It is to my mind the fullest expression of the idea that the felicity of sentences is the result of their meeting a range of complex, sometimes independent but nonetheless, interlocking conditions which constrain a range of phenomena, including but not restricted to number of arguments, position of arguments and dislocation of arguments. I moved out of studying syntax and into semantics and the syntax/semantics interface, but LGB remains inspiring in part because it provides tools that can be used to explore and express the relation between purely syntactic constraints and constraints which are grounded in semantic concepts, a topic which fascinated me then and continues to fascinate me now. Given my concerns, it was natural that Jim Higginbotham would be my dissertation advisor, but Noam was a committee member, and read and commented with care, drawing out for me the consequences of my own thinking that I hadn’t until then, been aware of and pushing me always further.

I haven’t seen much of Noam since I left MIT. I moved to Israel, and he gave me good advice about who to look out for and talk to. He visited Israel in 1987, when I heard him speak brilliantly on both linguistics and politics. In 1990–1991, on sabbatical at MIT, I shared with him my horror and fears about the Gulf War. Much later, in 2004, I introduced him to my 7-year-old daughter at the LSA, (which later, when she became politically active, gained her much kudos among her anarchist friends). And in 2013, I was very happy to be able to exploit a visit to Harvard to come and say hallo to Noam, and also, of course, to Morris. Noam’s influence, though, is far beyond what this suggests. Beyond what I learned about syntax, I learned from Noam the sheer thrill of thinking hard, the aesthetic pleasure in constructing an insightful theoretical explanation for confusing data, and the centrality of the notion of explanation. And, by example, Noam hammered home the fundamental lesson that critical and evaluative thinking is not just a professional activity, but also an activity that must power every aspect of our lives.

Happy Birthday, Noam. Ad me’ah ve-esrim shana!


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