During a recent party, a younger colleague asked me: “Don’t you think that if Chomsky hadn’t come along, someone else would have come up with generative grammar? Wasn’t it sort of in the air?” My immediate response, within microseconds, was a flat and definitive No. My colleague was kind of stunned. So I went on to explain: What made generative grammar remarkable was the revolutionary conjunction of two important ideas. First, Chomsky proposed to think of language not as something out in the world, but as a mental phenomenon, a kind of knowledge, grounded in the structure of the brain, and ultimately in human biology.
Second, he developed a rigorous and captivating formalism for describing the intricacies of grammar. (I say “captivating” because, in the course of my Presidential address at the LSA, I asked: “How many of you became a linguist because you thought Chomsky’s account of the English auxiliary in Syntactic Structures was just SO COOL?”—and hands went up all over the room).
Either of these ideas alone would have been a work of genius, but ultimately the biological basis of language alone would have degenerated into flabbiness, and the computational nature of language would have led to extensive but ungrounded formalism. It was the synergy between the two that spurred the fascination of generative grammar among linguists, psychologists, philosophers, anthropologists, and even literary and musical theorists. But aside from linguistics, none of these other disciplines took off in the same way, in part because—despite the ideas being “in the air”—nobody developed a formalism with the same rigorous and creative oomph of transformational grammar.
Over the years, I have come to disagree with Noam on just about every detail of the formalism (beyond the existence of phrase structure), and as well on many aspects of the overall architecture of the language faculty. I have even begun to wonder (horrors!) whether Zellig Harris’s notion of transformations might be closer to the truth than Noam’s. But I still consider myself to be working within his overall vision of what language is like and how one should investigate it. I still believe that children have come equipped with a brain specialized for learning language, and I find it important to find out what that specialization is. And I still find it imperative to explore the structure of language in rigorous formal terms, even if my technology is quite different from his (and becoming more so). And I’m still in awe of his incredible intellect, which created this crazy field we’re in. I wouldn’t be in the business if it weren’t for Noam.
So thanks, Noam, and congratulations on reaching this amazing milestone with marbles and feistiness intact. Biz a hundert tsvansik!