In reflecting on Noam’s 90th birthday, two less obvious things come to mind, beyond my obvious debt to him in terms of his conceptualization of the field of linguistics (syntax) and his example of how to pursue it.
The first is how his analysis of the English tense and auxiliary system from Syntactic Structures permeated a bit of American culture, until it found me. This analysis was incorporated into a class in English transformational grammar that aspiring English teachers at the University of Wisconsin needed to take back in the late 1960s. Among those aspiring teachers was my fourth grade student teacher, a Mr. Hampton. His notion of protesting the hierarchical system was to teach what he learned at the university to his fourth grade students. Therefore, I was exposed in a “critical period” to two weeks of affix hopping, do support, negation, and subject-aux inversion. I thought it was the coolest thing ever that there were precise mathematics-like regularities lurking in something as messy and human as language, without people being aware of them. Another of those aspiring English teachers was my mother, and she loaned me her textbook from the class. This fired my young imagination, not just about linguistics, but about intellectual endeavor more generally, and sowed a powerful seed helping to shape the rest of my life. So here is to one linguist who managed to penetrate a bit of the popular culture!
The second is Noam’s example to me as a graduate mentor. In the 1980s he was very generous about meeting students on a regular basis. Of course, that meeting might be interrupted at any time by a phone call from some important activist or organizer or public figure. But I never minded the chance to eavesdrop a little bit (and collect my own thoughts) and then hear whatever he had to say about whoever had called and why. More generally, he was an example to me of how to handle oneself as someone with strong views about things that are a bit out of line with mainstream (academic) thinking and culture. On the one hand, he never hid his views about these matters, and was clearly who he was; on the other hand, he never pressured or forced others (me) to conform to those views either. This continues to be a model for me, as I have my own strong views that are a bit outside the (academic) mainstream—ones that are superficially quite different from Noam’s, it seems, but I have seen many assonances as well.
Happy 90th birthday, Noam, and thanks for the inspiration, both from far off and from close at hand.