The Chomsky Connection

Dec. 19, 2011

This February, Noam Chomsky, a world-renowned linguist, intellectual, and political activist, will be setting foot on the University of Arizona campus for the first time.

The UA department of linguistics is understandably abuzz about the upcoming visit. In the world of linguistics, Chomsky is king. And he will not merely be dropping by to give a public lecture, he will be spending a few days at the UA, giving two formal lectures – one academic and one for the general public – and also spending time with the faculty and students in the department.

“Chomsky's visit is an extraordinary opportunity for us,” says linguistics graduate student Jeff Punske. “He is the father of modern linguistics. Our meeting is akin to physics students getting to have a salon with Newton or Einstein. It is that big.”

“The Most Important Intellectual Alive”

Chomsky, who according to The New York Times is “arguably the most important intellectual alive,” is credited with revolutionizing the field of linguistics by introducing the Chomsky hierarchy, generative grammar and the concept of a universal grammar, which underlies all human speech and is based in the innate structure of the mind/brain. Over the years, Chomsky has been a profoundly influential voice, lecturing widely and publishing numerous books on U.S. foreign policy, Mideast politics and other subjects.

Now in his 80s, he has not slowed down, still traveling, lecturing, writing and grabbing headlines. He’s as famous – probably more so – for his political involvement as for his linguistic prowess. Chomsky’s fame has extended into popular culture, leading such fans as Bono of U2 to describe him as the “Elvis of academia.”

”The most obvious feature of Chomsky is that he is a man for all seasons,” says Tom Bever, a UA Regents’ Professor of Linguistics.  “He does the work of three public figures: field-leading linguist, political and social theorist, public commentator and speaker. Any one of these polymorphisms would be sufficient success for most mortals.”

Deep UA Relationships

Chomsky’s connections to the UA are deep and long-standing, mostly stemming from the various sojourns of UA linguists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where Chomsky worked for more than 50 years.

“We have an unusually large number of people who were either Noam’s students or departmental fellows," says Bever, “Indeed, the joke in the linguistics world is a that UA linguistics is ‘MIT-west’.”

Bever was one of the first graduate students in the new linguistics program started at MIT by Chomsky and Morris Halle. Even though Bever and Chomksy have not collaborated directly since, they have enjoyed a collegial give-and-take over the years.

“He has harassed me, productively, about psycholinguistics and I have returned the compliment,” said Bever. “We have had many personal and email exchanges on many topics. Interacting with him is always a bit electric. But after a few initial sparks, he actually turns into a reasonably normal guy.”  

Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, a UA professor of linguistics and cognitive science, met Chomksy in May 1974 when he organized a conference on biolinguistics (the first of its kind) with Chomsky and Salvador Luria (a giant of early molecular genetics and a Nobel laureate). In 1980, Piattelli-Palmarini was the organizer and the editor of the famous debate between Chomsky and Jean Piaget, which was subsequently translated into 11 languages.

Piattelli-Palmarini was a principal research scientist at the Center for Cognitive Science of MIT from 1985 to 1994, and was a visiting professor at the MIT Department of Linguistics in the spring of 2005.

”In the last 30 years or so, I cannot think of another author who has influenced my thinking, my writing and my teaching more than Chomsky,” Piattelli-Palmarini said.

While the faculty are excited to see Chomsky again, Piattelli-Palmarini relays that the anticipation goes both ways. “He tells me he is very excited too. It's his first visit ever to this University, where so many long time friends, ex-students and colleagues are.”

February Lecture Schedule

Academic Lecture
February 7, 4 p.m. –  “What is Special About Language?” in the Student Union Memorial Center, North Ballroom.

Public Lecture/SBS Annual Lecture Series
February 8, 7 p.m. – “Education for Whom and For What?” in Centennial Hall

The Chomsky visit is sponsored by the College of Social and Behavioral Science, Confluence: Center for Creative Inquiry, and the Department of Linguistics. Additional support comes from the College of Education, Elise Collins Shields and Creston Shields, the Arizona Daily Star, as well as from the School of Anthropology, the Department of Computer Science, the Cognitive Science Program, the Department of Communication, the School of Geography and Development, the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies, the School of Government and Public Policy, the Department of History, the College of Humanities, the School of Journalism, the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, the School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies, the Department of Philosophy, the Department of Psychology, the Department of Sociology, and UA BookStores.

View all information and scheduling for Chomsky's visit and lectures.