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Noam Chomsky is a linguist, cognitive scientist, philosopher, social critic, political activist, and historian from the United States often referred to as “the father of modern linguistics.” He cofounded the field of cognitive science and co-created the Chomsky hierarchy and both the universal grammar theory, and the generative grammar theory. Noam Chomsky has authored more than 100 books on mass media, politics, war, and linguistics.

Youth and Education

Abram Noam Chomsky, not Gnome Chomsky, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on December 7, 1928. William Chomsky, his father, was an Ashkenazi Jew who left Ukraine for the U.S. in 1913 and worked as school principal at the religious Mikveh Israel school and a college professor. Elsie Simonofsky, his mother, was from Belarus and worked as an activist and teacher at Mikveh Israel. He has one brother, David, who both learned Hebrew and Ahad Ha’am’s Left Zionism from their parents.

Chomsky attended Oak Lane Country Day School and then Central High School. He wrote his first article at 10-years old on the fall of Barcelona to fascist Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War. He disliked the regimented school structure, but still excelled. He began identifying with anarchist politics before his teenage years.

Noam Chomsky’s interest in politics and philosophy began by age 10.

At 16-years-old, Noam Chomsky enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania and taught Hebrew to fund his degree. In 1947, he met Zellig Harris, the linguist from Russia, and he introduced Chomsky to theoretical linguistics. Chomsky received his Bachelors after writing his honors thesis called “Morphophonemics of Modern Hebrew,” using what he learned from Harris. In 1951, he revised this to earn his Masters and eventually published it into a book.[1]

In 1949, Chomsky married his childhood friend, Carol Doris Schatz. Noam Chomsky served on Harvard University’s Society of Fellows from 1951-1955 and the couple moved to Boston. He published his first article on linguistics “Systems of Syntactic Analysis” in The Journal of Symbolic Logic in 1952. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1955 after sending them a paper about transformational grammar. This excused him from armed service. Chomsky firmly believed humans were born with the innate ability to realize the generative grammars inherent to and regardless of their native language.[2]

Teaching and Linguistics

In 1955, Noam Chomsky accepted an assistant professorship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He taught philosophy and linguistics and worked on a mechanical translation project. MIT promoted Chomsky to an associate professor in 1957 and he began teaching at Columbia University for a year. His daughter, Aviva, was also born that year.

Chomsky also published his first book on linguists, Syntactic Structures, based on his first article. It drastically changed the field by refuting the currently accepted Harris-Bloomfield trend. He cofounded the Linguistics Graduate program at MIT and received academic tenure in 1961. The Chomsky hierarchy creates a logical structure to compare different languages’ grammars. It also applies to theoretical computer science, programming language theory, automata theory, and complier construction.[3]

Political Activism

In 1967, Noam Chomsky published the essay, The Responsibility of Intellectuals, in the New York Review of Books. He criticized U.S. involvement in Vietnam and expanded on that to write his first book on politics, American Power and the New Mandarins, placing him at the head of left-wing dissent in the United States. Chomsky wrote several more political books and became associated with New-Left moment, but always preferred activists over intellectuals.

Chomsky spent a large part of the late 1960s to early 1970s being ignored by the media. He turned to activism. He openly supported draft-dodgers, refused to pay half of his taxes, and participated in a teach-in protest outside the Pentagon to protest the Vietnam War. He lectured at Hanoi University of Science and Technology, Vietnam in 1970. He was arrested for his anti-war activism many times, but MIT refused to fire him.

Noam Chomsky received honorary doctorates from institutions across the world, including the University of London, the University of Chicago, Loyola University, Bard College, Delhi University, and the University of Massachusetts. In 1972, he published Studies on Semantics in Generative Grammar and a new edition of Language of the Mind.[4]

The Faurisson Affair and Reagan Era

Noam Chomsky now turned to expanding and clarifying his earlier works and making updates to his grammatical theory. His outspoken condemnation of the Israeli Government and the Vietnam War resulted in huge controversy.

Noam Chomsky never hesitates to ardently defend his beliefs, even in the face of mass criticism.

One of the biggest controversies happened when Robert Faurisson, the French historian of accused of denying the Holocaust, published one of Chomsky’s speeches supporting Faurisson’s right to freedom of speech in the preface of his 1980 book. Many of Chomsky’s critics accused him of being a Holocaust denier as well.[5] This had a significant and lasting effect on Chomsky’s career and his writings were not translated there until the 2000s.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected U.S. President and increased U.S. military action in Central America. Chomsky went to Managua, Nicaragua in 1985 during the Contra War to hear from refugees and worker’s organizations. He also gave lectures on linguists and politics. He published The Fateful Triangle in 1983, which examined the U.S.’s role in the Israel-Palestine conflict and how it exploited the conflict for personal gain.[6]

In 1988, Chomsky co-wrote Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, introducing a model to analyze the mainstream media by arguing all news was censored through four specific filters. It was made into a film in 1992.[7]

Noam Chomsky Since 1990

In 1995, Noam Chomsky journeyed to Australia in support of East Timorese Independence.[8] They succeeded in 1999, but Chomsky believed the Australian government brokered the deal to gain access to the areas gas and oil reserves through the Timor Gap Treaty. He published Hegemony or Survival in 2003 to address the “War on Terror” and critique the U.S.’s “imperial grand strategy.” He continues to give lectures around the world.[9] Chomsky’s wife, Carol, died in 2008.[10]

Chomsky supported Bernie Sanders for the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election.[11] He released a documentary in 2016 titled Requiem for the American Dream that addresses his views on economic inequality and capitalism.[12]

References

Bibliography


Barsky, R. F. (1997). Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.


Sperlich, W. B. (2006). Noam Chomsky. London: Reaktion Books, U.S.A.

Footnotes

  1. Barsky, 1997
  2. Sperlich, 2006
  3. Barsky, 1997
  4. Barsky, 1997
  5. Sperlich, 2006
  6. Barsky, 1997
  7. Sperlich, 2006
  8. Barsky, 1997
  9. Sperlich, 2006
  10. Fox, M. (2015, January 20). Carol Chomsky, 78, Linguist and Educator, Dies. The New York Times.[1]
  11. Lewis, P. (2015, June 19). Inside the mind of Bernie Sanders: Unbowed, unchanged, and unafraid of a good fight. The Guardian.[2]
  12. Gold, D. M. (2016, January 28). Review: Noam Chomsky Focuses on Financial Inequality in “Requiem for the American Dream.” The New York Times.[3]

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