Photography:
John Soares




BY SAMUEL HUGHES

Not-not-not. A hand raps lightly on the office door.
  
It’s the universal grammar of Knuckle, a language that goes deeper than human speech. Dr. A. Noam Chomsky C’48 G’51 Gr’55 Hon’84 glances over his shoulder and emits an utterance to the rapper: “OK, just a minute,” which turns out to mean something like, “Come back in five or 10 minutes and try again.” Then he revs up his language module and the quiet torrent of words resumes, his discourse segueing effortlessly from the structure of cognitive systems to the degradation of classical liberalism to Eugene Debs and the crushing of the labor movement to Richard Nixon’s dismantling of the Bretton Woods international economic system to the World Trade Organization’s next meeting in Qatar to the totalitarian nature of corporations to—
  
NOT-NOT-NOT. The meaning of this second Knuckle discourse is clear even to someone who has never heard the dialect before. Chomsky again says that he’ll be done in “just a minute,” which this time I translate to mean, “I know this chowderhead is taking advantage of my generosity, but since he came all the way up from Philadelphia, let’s cut him a little slack.”
  
The knuckles belong to Bev Stohl, Chomsky’s personable assistant and, um, temporal structuralist. She reigns supreme in the outer office of the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy at MIT, where Chomsky is the Institute Professor of Linguistics. Even legendary anarchists sometimes need a firm hand and a system to save them from their own discursive effusiveness.
  
A question: Given that he pretty much changed the course of linguistics and the cognitive sciences with his theory of a “language faculty” inherent in all humans, does it ever strike him as ironic that his own language faculty borders on the superhuman?|
  
“No,” he says mildly, twisting a small piece of paper in his fingers. “I don’t particularly like speaking. It’s one of those things which I never intended to do.”
  
Hmm. That would explain the barely audible voice and the initial hesitancy to accept yet another interview request. (His schedule is booked months in advance, and he turns down several interview requests each day.) But it should not be taken to mean that he stumbled blindly into his second career as a public intellectual and high-profile dissident.
  
“I remember very well deciding whether to make that move,” he says, pinpointing the decision to about 1960. “You can’t get into these things casually. If you get involved, it’s going to be very demanding, and more than a full-time life. You either do it seriously or you don’t do it at all.”
  
Chomsky, by any definition of the word, does it seriously. In Poland, some people assumed there were two Noam Chomskys: the seminal, prolific linguist and the seminal, prolific dissenter. The notion that one man could be both was apparently incomprehensible. Even now, this 72-year-old grandfather of four shows few signs of slowing down. Dr. Lila Gleitman G’72 Gr’75, the Steven and Marcia Roth Professor of Psychology and professor of linguistics at Penn and an old friend of Chomsky’s, may have figured out his secret. She thinks it’s “unfair that he has 30-hour days and the rest of us only have 24-hour days.”


../1198/space%20holder

 

 
continued |

July/Aug Contents | Gazette Home

Copyright 2001 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 5/2/01

SIDEBAR:
The Way They Were (and Are)