Friday, February 10, 2012

The Radical Linguist Noam Chomsky Over 50 years ago, he began a revolution that's still playing out today.

For centuries experts held that every language is unique. Then one day in 1956, a young linguistics professor gave a legendary presentation at the Symposium on Information Theory at MIT. He argued that every intelligible sentence conforms not only to the rules of its particular language but to a universal grammar that encompasses all languages. And rather than absorbing language from the environment and learning to communicate by imitation, children are born with the innate capacity to master language, a power imbued in our species by evolution itself. Almost overnight, linguists’ thinking began to shift.

Avram Noam Chomsky was born in Philadelphia on December 7, 1928, to William Chomsky, a Hebrew scholar, and Elsie Simonofsky Chomsky, also a scholar and an author of children’s books. While still a youngster, Noam read his father’s manuscript on medieval Hebrew grammar, setting the stage for his work to come. By 1955 he was teaching linguistics at MIT, where he formulated his groundbreaking theories. Today Chomsky continues to challenge the way we perceive ourselves. Language is “the core of our being,” he says. “We are always immersed in it. It takes a strong act of will to try not to talk to yourself when you’re walking down the street, because it’s just always going on.”

Chomsky also bucked against scientific tradition by becoming active in politics. He was an outspoken critic of American involvement in Vietnam and helped organize the famous 1967 protest march on the Pentagon. When the leaders of the march were arrested, he found himself sharing a cell with Norman Mailer, who described him in his book Armies of the Night as “a slim, sharp-featured man with an ascetic expression, and an air of gentle but absolute moral integrity.” Read More