Chomsky: Ideas and Ideals – My Linguistic & Political Awakening

Chomsky Ideas and Ideals

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Blog post by Neil Smith, co-author of  the recently published third edition of Chomsky: Ideas and Ideals

Neil Smith disuses his experience of the 60’s and explains what Chomsky’s lectures at MIT were really like…

1962: I had embarked on a linguistics PhD on the Northern Nigerian language Nupe. To do the necessary fieldwork I hitch-hiked to Nigeria and lived in a mud hut for a year. It was an exhilarating if sometimes lonely time.

1964: On the basis of my PhD I was given the position of lecturer in West African languages at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London – it was easier in those days to get a tenured University job than it is now to get a new carpet.

1966: After two years I was getting desperate. SOAS was claustrophobic and faintly racist. The standard position in the Africa department was that “African languages are not like other languages” so cannot be described by any linguistic theory, least of all any American linguistic theory. I needed to escape. So I applied for a Harkness Fellowship and went to MIT to try to find out what Chomsky was doing.

To my dismay, when I arrived Chomsky was away on sabbatical. But waiting for his return (in January 1967) gave me time to catch up with what was going on since Aspects had been published in 1965. I discovered that Generative Semantics was rampant: J.R. (Haj) Ross and George Lakoff were in the ascendant, giving phenomenally popular lectures, and the consensus was that Chomsky’s edifice was crumbling.

At this point Chomsky began the course of lectures that became “Remarks on Nominalization”, published in 1970. They were amazing for the clarity of his analyses, the rapier-like thrust of his argumentation, and the originality of his position. Among other contributions these lectures saw the beginning of X-bar theory, the first sketch of the lexicalist hypothesis, and the further development of feature theory with the startling suggestion that the distinction between features and categories might be eliminated. These lectures led to the rout of his opponents and presaged the demise of Generative Semantics. This was despite the fact that the ostensible target of his lexicalist position was Bob Lees rather than Ross and Lakoff (who were in the audience) or Jim McCawley and Emmon Bach (who put in occasional appearances). It was some years before I really understood all the issues – and 1999 before the first edition of Chomsky: Ideas and Ideals appeared. This was my linguistic awakening.

The obvious power and breadth of Chomsky’s mind become even more apparent when one realises that throughout this period he was spending most of his time on activism against the Vietnam War. This was a time of turmoil in the States: Students for a Democratic Society were encouraging draft resistance, confrontations between demonstrators and counter-demonstrators on Boston Common were commonplace: often with the police having to defend those like Chomsky who were protesting against the war from those defending it. I had barely been aware of the Vietnam War – I had just accepted the jingoistic characterisations in the media of episodes like the debacle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. As always, Chomsky was able to put things in a wider perspective on the basis of an encyclopaedic grasp of the literature, most strikingly demonstrated when he quoted a 700 page dissenting position by one of the members (Pal) of the Tokyo Tribunal. I hadn’t even heard of the Tokyo Tribunal. My political naiveté was beginning to be dispelled in the same way as my linguistic naiveté. This was my political awakening.

2015: Half a century later Chomsky is still contributing fresh ideas in linguistics, and he is still dissecting the lies and misrepresentations of government and big business. It is hard to keep up, but the third edition of Chomsky: Ideas and Ideals, written jointly with Nicholas Allott is about to appear. That will bring you up to date.

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