Speech! continued


The young man 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.
In 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.)
The idea of moving to Palestine and joining a kibbutz was becoming more and more alluring—especially since he found himself “very disillusioned” by courses that had looked exciting in the Penn catalogue, but weren’t.
“I was about ready to quit,” he recalls. “That’s when I met Harris.”
That would be the late Dr. Zellig Harris C’20 Gr’34, 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 Chomsky’s knew each other slightly as part of the same Philadelphia Jewish community, it wasn’t until they began to talk at Penn—drawn together not by linguistics but by politics—that the neurological sparks began to fly.
“The primary teacher of Noam was Zellig Harris,” says Dr. Henry Hiz, emeritus professor of linguistics, who also taught Chomsky at Penn. “It’s very difficult to describe the profound influence Harris had on him—and on me, too.”
“Zellig was a primary influence on Noam, perhaps the primary influence back then,” agrees Carol Chomsky CW’51, 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 it’s fair to say that Zellig was responsible, in so many different ways, for the direction that Noam’s intellectual life took then and later.”
The 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 “Zellig’s lack of interest in my work, which dates back to the late ’40s, when I was an undergraduate”—adding that “it was never of the slightest concern to me—never thought about it twice, in fact; seemed entirely natural, for whatever reason.”
He has acknowledged Harris’s influence on him, both personally and professionally.
“My 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.
Harris, 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.
“He never wrote much,” Chomsky adds, “but he was a very powerful personality, and he was very interested in encouraging young people to do things.”
Along 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 dropping out.
“In retrospect, I’m 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.”
Those included graduate-level philosophy courses with the late Dr. Nelson Goodman, and graduate-level mathematics with the late Dr. Nathan Fine G’39 Gr’46. 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 didn’t meet in classrooms.
“There used to be a Horn & Hardart’s right past 34th Street on Woodland Avenue,” he recalls, “and we’d often meet in the upstairs, or in his apartment in Princeton. His wife was a mathematician; she was working with Einstein.”
Despite 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]. It’s kind of a well-known fact in the field; it’s not a secret. I had a very idiosyncratic background, and was interested in other things.”
“Chomsky’s education reflected Harris’s 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.
Henry 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.”
Chomsky’s undergraduate honors thesis, which drew somewhat on his father’s work in Hebrew, was titled “Morphophonemics of Modern Hebrew.” He later revised and expanded it for his master’s 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.”
That thesis didn’t 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 “didn’t really know [Chomsky] very well,” though he does recall that he was “very brilliant at all times.”)
It 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.
“I was 1-A,” Chomsky recalls. “I was going to be drafted right away. I figured I’d 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-registered—I hadn’t 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 to—that was my exams. I got a six-week deferment, and I got my Ph.D.”
That 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 wouldn’t 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 don’t 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.”
The original copy of “Transformational Analysis”—typed in sober black ink and signed by Harris—is 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 Harris’s Methods in Structural Linguistics and an article in Language, “Transformational Analysis” was also informed by Henry Hiz’s 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?”
The 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.
Today, 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 wasn’t a field. That’s why I’m at MIT”—which in those days didn’t even have an undergraduate linguistics department.
His appointment was in MIT’s Research Laboratory of Electronics—the perfect spot for Chomsky, who says he didn’t 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 pointless”—and 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, logic—and 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.”
Those 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.”
Syntactic 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.”
Chomsky, 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.
“I never paid attention to the ‘linguistic wars’ fabricated by enthusiastic postmodernists,” he says. “The stories are comical.”




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