Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1771
Article abstract: By creating and developing a new theory of how language works, Chomsky transformed the study of linguistics. At the same time, he built a worldwide reputation as a radical critic of U.S. foreign policy and media culture.
Avram Noam Chomsky was born on December 7, 1928, to Dr. William “Zev” Chomsky and Elsie Simonofsky in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He grew up in a Jewish household. William was a Hebrew scholar and teacher in a Hebrew elementary school, of which he eventually became principal. He had fled from Russia to the United States in 1913 to avoid being drafted into the czarist Army. Chomsky had one brother who became a medical doctor.
Chomsky’s mother was a thinker, teacher, and activist. Chomsky had a unique combination of the qualities of both of his parents. They lived in a lower-class neighborhood of Philadelphia, a city known for its passivist Quaker roots. The neighborhood was primarily inhabited by Germans and Irish Catholics who were largely anti-Semite and pro-Nazi. His early childhood memories included door-to-door peddlers selling rags or apples, women textile workers on strike in downtown Philadelphia, and police beating strikers. Among his relatives, he was exposed to many strong political opinions and differing viewpoints. Growing up in the midst of this environment, Chomsky developed a strong social conscience.
He began his formal education in a private elementary school just before his second birthday. He had been an avid reader from a very early age. The school, Oak Lane Country Day School, was an experimental institution based on the principles of John Dewey, the great educator and proponent of creativity. The school emphasized freedom and discovery learning. The evaluation system was nongraded and noncompetitive. Students were encouraged to pursue their own individual interests and to compete against themselves. All students were taught to think of themselves as successful students.
Chomsky began writing for the school newspaper in fifth grade at the age of ten. His first article was called “The Fall of Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War.” He recalls his elementary school years as the most influential of his life. The freedom, creativity, and emphasis on collaboration rather than competition that the school promoted provided a learning environment he did not experience during his public school years. Chomsky entered Central High School, a public high school in Philadelphia, at the age of twelve. He was distressed by the school’s emphasis on competition between students. He thought the idea of trying to do better than someone else rather than doing one’s best was a ridiculous notion. Despite his unhappiness, he was active in clubs and was well liked. He entered the University of Pennsylvania at the young age of sixteen while living at home. He paid his own way, however, by teaching Hebrew at a private school during the afternoons. His unsatisfying experience with high school was duplicated in college. He was again dismayed at the emphasis on competition rather than individual creativity.
At the age of nineteen, Chomsky began to date Carol Doris Schatz, a professor at Harvard University who held the Fervan P. Ward Chair of Modern Languages and Linguistics. They had three children together, the first of whom was born in 1957, after eight years of marriage.
In 1949, Chomsky entered graduate school, and he received his master of arts degree in 1951. He held a fellowship at Harvard in the early 1950’s. In 1953, he made an important trip to Europe, during which he was able to synthesize his ideas about language. During this same year, he and Carol lived for six weeks on a kibbutz (a communal farm or settlement) in Israel. In 1955, he received his doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania. That same year, he left Harvard to begin research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with Morris Halle, a linguist. He became an associate professor at MIT at the young age of twenty-nine and full professor at thirty-two.
Most of Chomsky’s primary language work was accomplished during the early to mid-1960’s. This is referred to as his “classic period” during which the works for which he is most widely known were written: Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (1965), Language and Mind (1968), and, with Morris Halle, The Sound Pattern of English (1968). Through these works, he became the spokesman for American linguistics. The essence of Chomsky’s thought is that a universal language capacity lies within each human being. This might be described as a striving that both drives and restricts the eventual development of a complete and full communication system. He suggested that this capacity is already present in every human mind. He noted that children, even those who encounter very difficult life circumstances, learn to speak within a fairly narrow time period in the same way that children develop other important human capacities, such as crawling and walking. This idea was completely new. Before this time it was believed that learning a first language was a training process—something done to an individual rather than something present within each individual. His work broke sharply from so-called structural linguistics, the accepted standard of that time.
In 1975, Chomsky participated in the Royamount Debate with Jean Piaget, the Swiss psychologist who revolutionized early childhood education. In the late 1970’s, he became fascinated with animals and language acquisition. He came to believe that human beings are separated from the animals precisely by the innate language ability that he had described—an ability that he showed is “like breathing” for humans. He reiterated the idea that language is acquired by exposure rather than training. He also believed that humans can construct language in a very creative way. Rather than thinking of language as a series of memorized phrases, Chomsky wrote that a human can create many new combinations of words that have never been heard before. He suggested that this was because of the fact that humans have a unique and abstract internal system of “rules” in their minds that can produce various unique combinations of words that emerge during speech.
Chomsky received many awards for his work in linguistics, including two honorary degrees from The University of Chicago (1967) and the University of London (1967). In 1988, he was also the recipient of the Kyoto Prize for Basic Science for his contribution to science in general. Chomsky’s father died in 1977. In 1979, he took a sabbatical in the Italian town of Pisa. This period of rest, travel, and research away from home became a very important time during which he solidified many of the ideas for which he is now famous.
In addition to his linguistic theories, Chomsky also held strong left-leaning political beliefs. He distrusted authority and disparaged nationalism and the lack of accountability by politicians to citizens. He called himself a libertarian and championed the causes of ordinary people. He felt that schools were a means of enforcing conformity in society and that they lacked the emphasis on freedom and creativity that he believed played such an important role in stimulating his learning at the Oak Lane Country Day School.
Chomsky also believed there was collusion between those who controlled the media and the powerful elite of the society. This belief grew out of the fact that his anti-Vietnam War book, Counter-Revolutionary Violence (1973), was ignored and censored by the mainstream press. During the 1960’s and 1970’s, Chomsky articulated political views that opposed the Vietnam War and U.S. foreign policy in many published articles. He even spent a week in communist North Vietnam observing the situation and talking with those who, at that time, were considered the enemies of the United States. When he returned, he was even more outspoken about his opposition to the war in Vietnam. He wrote numerous letters to newspapers, many of which were not published unless cosigned. Considered a renegade by many politicians, he spent a long night in police custody after a protest against the war and was threatened with a jail term. Later, his name was found on President Richard M. Nixon’s “enemy” list. His books, articles, and speeches, along with his political activities, played a major role in the resistance against the U.S. policy in Vietnam.
Noam Chomsky, with his dry sense of humor, has been an eloquent speaker for both his ideas about language and his political views. His views on language have changed how people think about language acquisition. While many students and scholars have found Chomsky and his work to be truly inspirational, he has been known, when faced with a controversial situation, to be unwilling to make even small or simple compromises to resolve issues with those who have disagreed with him. At the same time, this particular quality has been admired by many people because Chomsky has never compromised his views to please others or gain material rewards or personal recognition. He has always believed in the need for personal sacrifice and local action for global change, as well as the importance of having and acting on a social conscience. In addition to his long-standing creative achievements in understanding language, Chomsky has been a man both unafraid and unwilling to be silent in the face of any violation of human rights. He will always be remembered as a man of principles as well as ideas.
Barsky, Robert F. Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1997. Rich in quotations and anecdotes, this book attempts to provide a biography of parts of Chomsky’s personal and intellectual life, although clear glimpses of his personal life are still missing.
Chomsky, Noam. Chomsky: Selected Readings. Edited by J. P. B. Allen and Paul Van Buren. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971. The readings in this book were selected from a variety of books and articles representing the main scope of Chomsky’s linguistic work during the twelve years prior to its publication. Basic principles, syntax, phonology, semantics, and language acquisition are covered.
Haley, Michael C., and Ronald F. Lunsford. Noam Chomsky. New York: Twayne, 1994. Based on a series of interviews with Chomsky, the primary focus of this book is to give an overall sense of the basis and development of Chomsky’s theoretical work.
Leiber, Justin. Noam Chomsky: A Philosophic Overview. New York: Twayne, 1975. Leiber provides a philosopher’s interpretation of Chomsky’s thought. The book is based on presentations from a course taught by the author.
Ramaiah, L. S., and T. V. Chandra. Noam Chomsky: A Bibliography. Gurgaon, Haryana, India: Indian Documentation Service, 1984. This is an attempt to provide a complete listing of all literature on and by Chomsky. Entries are arranged in alphabetical order by the name of the author.
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