who would become arguably the most influential intellectual ever to graduate
from Penn nearly dropped out his sophomore year. By then it was
1947, and Chomsky was commuting from his parents house in the East Oak
Lane section of Philadelphia and teaching Hebrew School on the side. His
father, Dr. William Chomsky, was the head of the Hebrew School system
in Philadelphia, and a respected Semitic philologist who wrote a book
on medieval Hebrew grammar.
his spare time, Noam was running youth groups, all involved in affairs
of what was then Palestine. He was a Zionist in those days, though it
was a leftist stream of Zionism, one whose bi-nationalist outlook would
be considered anti-Zionist today. (Chomsky then, as now, opposed the creation
of a Jewish state in Palestine, believing that it would carve up the territory
and marginalize its Arab population.)
idea of moving to Palestine and joining a kibbutz was becoming more and
more alluringespecially since he found himself very disillusioned by
courses that had looked exciting in the Penn catalogue, but werent.
was about ready to quit, he recalls. Thats when I met Harris.
would be the late Dr. Zellig Harris C20 Gr34, the Russian-born linguist
who founded and chaired the linguistics department at Penn (first in the
nation), and whose books included Methods in Structural Linguistics,
Mathematical Structures of Language, and Papers in Structural
and Transformational Linguistics. Although his family and Chomskys
knew each other slightly as part of the same Philadelphia Jewish community,
it wasnt until they began to talk at Penndrawn together not by linguistics
but by politicsthat the neurological sparks began to fly.
primary teacher of Noam was Zellig Harris, says Dr. Henry Hiz, emeritus
professor of linguistics, who also taught Chomsky at Penn. Its very
difficult to describe the profound influence Harris had on himand on
was a primary influence on Noam, perhaps the primary influence
back then, agrees Carol Chomsky CW51, who went by Carol Schatz until
she and Noam were married in 1949. (See sidebar on p. 42.) Noam admired
him enormously, and I think its fair to say that Zellig was responsible,
in so many different ways, for the direction that Noams intellectual
life took then and later.
relationship between Harris and Chomsky appears to have been a complicated
one. The two later parted ways, and while Chomsky downplays that and attributes
it mostly to his own growing political activism during the 1960s, he also
mentions Zelligs lack of interest in my work, which dates back to the
late 40s, when I was an undergraduateadding that it was never of the
slightest concern to menever thought about it twice, in fact; seemed
entirely natural, for whatever reason.
has acknowledged Harriss influence on him, both personally and professionally.
formal introduction to the field of linguistics was in 1947, when Zellig
Harris gave me the proofs of his Methods in Structural Linguistics
to read, noted Chomsky in the 1975 introduction to his own early work,
The Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory (a chunk of which served
as his 1955 Ph.D. dissertation for Harris). I found it very intriguing
and, after some stimulating discussions with Harris, decided to major
in linguistics as an undergraduate at Penn.
says Chomsky now, was a very impressive person in many respects, and
one of the things that he was very much involved in at the time and attracted
me instantly was the socialist, bi-nationalist ideas about then-Palestine.
He was a leading figure in a group called Avukah, which was sort of a
left-Zionist, anarchist, socialist group of young Jewish intellectuals.
The core interest was Palestine, but it was broader than that.
never wrote much, Chomsky adds, but he was a very powerful personality,
and he was very interested in encouraging young people to do things.
with teaching him a tremendous amount about political matters, Chomsky
recalls, Harris just kind of suggested that I might want to sit in on
some of his courses. I did, and I got excited about that. So much for
retrospect, Im pretty sure he was trying to encourage me to get back
in, says Chomsky. I started taking, at his suggestion, graduate courses
in philosophy and math.
included graduate-level philosophy courses with the late Dr. Nelson Goodman,
and graduate-level mathematics with the late Dr. Nathan Fine G39 Gr46.
He also studied Arabic with Dr. Giorgio Levi Della Vida, whom he has described
as an antifascist exile from Italy who was a marvelous person as well
as an outstanding scholar. And, of course, he took linguistics courses
with Harris, though according to Chomsky, they usually didnt meet in
used to be a Horn & Hardarts right past 34th Street on Woodland Avenue,
he recalls, and wed often meet in the upstairs, or in his apartment
in Princeton. His wife was a mathematician; she was working with Einstein.
the linguistics courses, most of which were with Harris, Chomsky says
he never studied linguistics in a conventional or formal manner at Penn.
The fact of the matter is I have no professional training or credentials.
I could never get admitted to this department [at MIT]. Its kind of a
well-known fact in the field; its not a secret. I had a very idiosyncratic
background, and was interested in other things.
education reflected Harriss interests closely, writes Randy Harris in
The Linguistic Wars. It involved work in philosophy, logic, and
mathematics well beyond the normal training for a linguist. He read more
deeply in epistemology, an area where speculation about the great Bloomfieldian
taboo, mental structure, is not only legitimate, but inescapable. The
reference is to Leonard Bloomfield, the linguist who dominated the field
in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, and whose approach is now considered highly
methodical, empirical, and behaviorist.
Hiz was a visiting lecturer at Penn in 1951, and among the students in
his advanced class in logic and linguistics was Chomsky, then a graduate
student. He was very aggressive, recalls Hiz; not only listening but
commenting about my lectures. He was very good. And we talked outside
my class a lot. I was very impressed.
undergraduate honors thesis, which drew somewhat on his fathers work
in Hebrew, was titled Morphophonemics of Modern Hebrew. He later revised
and expanded it for his masters thesis, completed in 1951. That thesis
set the stage for some of his later work, writes Barsky, his biographer,
and is taken to be the first example of modern generative grammar.
thesis didnt have much impact at Penn, Chomsky suggests. As far as I
can recall, Henry Hoenigswald was the only faculty member who ever looked
at my undergraduate or MA thesis, and no one (to my knowledge) looked
at anything I did later. (Hoenigswald, now emeritus professor of linguistics,
says he didnt really know [Chomsky] very well, though he does recall
that he was very brilliant at all times.)
was the U.S. Army that prompted him to get his Penn Ph.D., which he never
expected to receive. In April 1955, having spent most of the past four
years pursuing his own edgy interests as a junior Harvard Fellow (for
which he was sponsored by Nelson Goodman), he got a draft notice.
was 1-A, Chomsky recalls. I was going to be drafted right away. I figured
Id try to get myself a six-week deferment until the middle of June, so
I applied for a Ph.D. I asked Harris and Goodman, who were still at Penn,
if they would mind if I re-registeredI hadnt been registered at Penn
in four years. I just handed in a chapter of what I was working on for
a thesis, and they sent me some questions via mail, which I wrote inadequate
answers tothat was my exams. I got a six-week deferment, and I got my
dissertation, titled Transformational Analysis, was actually a 175-page
section of a massive work titled The Logical Structure of Linguistic
Theory, which was so avant-garde that it wouldnt be published until
1975, and then only in part. I was writing mostly for myself, because
nobody was interested in this long thing, he says. It was 500 pages,
I guess. My wife and I ran it off on something called a hectograph. I
dont know how it worked, but it turned everything purple. The whole room
was purple. We just ran off 20 or 30 copies of this thing for friends.
original copy of Transformational Analysistyped in sober black ink
and signed by Harrisis still in the Rare Book and Manuscript collection
at Van Pelt Library. In his preface, Chomsky wrote that it was carried
out in close collaboration with Zellig Harris, to whom I am indebted for
many of the fundamental underlying ideas. In addition to citing Harriss
Methods in Structural Linguistics and an article in Language,
Transformational Analysis was also informed by Henry Hizs then-unpublished
Positional Algebras and Structural Linguistics. And in the opening pages,
he stated that a linguistic grammar should answer such then-radical questions
as: How can a speaker generate new sentences?
Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory was written for Chomskyan
linguists when there was only one, Chomsky, says Randy Harris. Another
linguist, H. Allan Gleason, later recalled: A few linguists found it
very difficult; most found it quite impossible. A few thought some of
the points were possibly interesting; most simply had no idea as to how
it might relate to what they knew as linguistics. They would, soon enough.
Chomsky says that if his hand had not been forced by the Army, his academic
career might have ended. Because I really had no specific intention of
going on in academic work. I was fairly interested in what I was doing,
but it wasnt a field. Thats why Im at MITwhich in those days didnt
even have an undergraduate linguistics department.
appointment was in MITs Research Laboratory of Electronicsthe perfect
spot for Chomsky, who says he didnt know the difference between a radio
and a toaster. (He also told the director that the machine-translation
project to which he would be assigned had no intellectual interest and
was also pointlessand got hired anyway.) But his research was open-ended
and his appointment only partial, so in order to support his family he
had to teach: German, French, philosophy, logicand linguistics. He taught
his linguistics, writes Randy Harris, and the lecture notes for
this course became the answer to the rhetorical gulf between the audience
for Logical Structure
and everyone else in the field.
notes were revised and published in 1957 as Syntactic Structures.
Once again, Chomsky noted in the preface: During the entire period of
this research I have had the benefit of very frequent and lengthy conversations
with Zellig S. Harris. So many of his ideas and suggestions are incorporated
into the text below and in the research on which it is based that I will
make no attempt to indicate them by special reference.
Structures was one of the masterpieces of linguistics, says Randy
Harris in The Linguistic Wars. Lucid, convincing, syntactically
daring, the calm voice of reason calling from the edge of a semantic jungle
Bloomfield had shooed his followers from, it spoke directly to the imagination
and ambition of the entire field.
whom Harris describes as a moody Hamlet occupying center stage during
the linguistic border disputes, is not terribly impressed by the dramatization
of his professional work.
never paid attention to the linguistic wars fabricated by enthusiastic
postmodernists, he says. The stories are comical.