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Kenneth Wexler

Published onApr 19, 2019
Kenneth Wexler

If I were asked to contribute the entry on Noam to Great Scientists of the 20th Century in One Short Sentence, I would be hard-pressed to choose between two candidates. One would be, “Chomsky’s work made it possible to investigate language scientifically.” This is perhaps a bit simplistic; we shouldn’t dismiss earlier work going back as far as the Sanskrit grammarians. Nevertheless, Chomsky’s research and writing has in general brought the study of language into the world of real science, to “naturalize” language.

On the other hand, I might select as the entry on Noam: “Chomsky put the study of language into the study of biology.” When biologists have asked me about Chomsky’s work, I explain the relation to genetics and biology and their response has been, but that’s biology. Indeed.

Before Chomsky, language was typically thought of as a kind of purely social phenomenon, not of the type that might really submit to real scientific research. This was of course true even in American psychology, which aspired to be a science. In many ways it’s still true of psychology and even of neuroscience, where language is thought of as an “emergent” phenomenon. (It’s very hard to know what “emergent” means except something like “mysterious.”) Chomsky’s work concretizes language into something real, a natural phenomenon. It is placed in the human brain.

The amazing thing is that at some level we all know (common sense) that language is a distinct and real system, like the functioning of the heart or the visual system. The fundamental axiom of empiricist psychology is that “there is nothing to be learned about the human mind.” Therefore, language cannot have this special, brain-based, genetically based status.

Does linguistics lack for a scientific methodology (as some voices tell us)? Absurd. Science exists in the tension between theory and experiment.

Both are crucial elements. Without theory, there is no idea to study and without idea there is no science. On the other hand, without experiment, there is no constraint except conceptual preference on the nature of the theory.

Linguistic theory in Noam’s hands became deep and precise, a real model of language. Like Galileo, like Newton, Noam not only re-conceptualized the notion of inquiry in a central natural domain but provided detailed and penetrating analyses, while setting the analyses against empirical constraint. He is among a small number of scientists in history who not only set serious new conceptual/philosophical underpinnings for a field but also developed central theories.

Psycholinguistics of any even potentially serious kind did not exist before Chomsky’s work. After his work there was an explosion. Experiments are legend, even telling experiments. These have only been made possible because of the existence of linguistic theory. Where was the work on sentence processing before Chomsky? Where was language acquisition? And linguistics itself has added serious experimentation on theoretical issues. A natural development as the science matures.

Noam’s work has made it possible for me to work. I can’t give him a greater personal tribute. When I was an undergraduate, loving precise, formal, and mathematical work but wanting to contribute to the study of cognition, I was fortunate to come upon Syntactic Structures. That one could use formal, clear analyses for language to achieve insight was an eye-opener. Noam’s insistence that the problem of language learnability was the basis for explanatory adequacy in linguistics was instrumental in setting me along my life’s work. Later, while I was working away in a somewhat isolated linguistic atmosphere in a non-major department at a non-major university, Noam read my work and spread it around. I believe this happened before we had even met. He has always supported young scientists struggling to find their paths, and has been open to a remarkable stream of different approaches, always starting from the broadest and deepest understanding of the nature of inquiry. For all this, Noam, for your own work and for your enabling and encouraging of broad swaths of creativity in the human mind and spirit, I thank you, inadequate though those thanks are.

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