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C.-T. James Huang

Published onApr 19, 2019
C.-T. James Huang

Thank you, Noam, and many Happy Returns!

The first time I attended a party to celebrate Noam’s birthday was 40 years ago, on the day he turned 50 in fall 1978—during my first semester at MIT. It was a surprise party held in a room in Building 20—a very memorable event, with wonderful dishes prepared by Carol Kiparsky and Mahanan and great variety shows put together by Ken Hale and David Pesetsky playing violin to the tune From Comp to Comp, Norbert Hornstein and Elan Dresher playing Nim Chimsky, and Jay Keyser speaking as The Tree, and more. It was a special occasion for me also because it was the first time I met Noam personally (as he was on sabbatical and mostly out of town that year).

There are too many blessings to be counted during these 40 years. One thing I have been grateful for is that Noam always had time for me, even when surrounded by so many others in and outside of linguistics. He got used to (as he put it) receiving my 50-page chapter draft on a Friday evening but always had comments on every page for our appointment the next Tuesday. His generosity continued after my graduation through all these years. In 1988, when I was at Cornell, Noam had someone call me to say he was coming to give a politics talk (on “Manufacturing Consent”) and that he would be available to give a linguistics talk as well. He also suggested that he and I have an easy walk on the Cornell campus (as he was recuperating from some back pains) to discuss a rough draft of my paper on reconstruction and the structure of VP, which led to its publication. My senior Cornell colleagues later praised me for having single-handedly gotten Noam to come visit the DMLL, to which I smiled but happily made no objection. (This story is worth telling because it’s often said that Noam would not accept any invitation to give a linguistics talk unless he is also invited to give a politics talk.)

Speaking of which, I am actually pretty proud of my role in helping to bring about Noam’s first visit to Taiwan and China, in 2010. There are too many worthy stories to tell, but I think he remembers the excitement that was omnipresent among the numerous people he met. People sometimes wonder how I succeeded in persuading him to go, and I have to admit (quoting Beverly Stohl) that it may be because “Noam was his own worst enemy when it came to saying no.” But there is also more to it. In our recent email exchange about being “retired and not tired,” he told me his “Bicycle Theory” (as it had appeared in an interview by Sam Tanenhaus in the New York Times earlier).

That’s right.

And by the way, remember what you did on the City Wall of Xi’an, Noam?

Happy 91st (counting the Asian way), and Many Happy Returns!

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