Seeing his mother’s reaction to hearing Hitler’s speeches on the radio is one of Noam Chomsky’s earliest memories. As a Jewish child growing up during the Second World War, it’s perhaps unsurprising that he went on to question just about everything.
‘I was very moved as a young child by oppression, destruction, the intense fear of what was going on in Europe,’ he said in an interview with the Guardian. ‘I saw the world as a complicated, frightening place. By the time I was nine I was reading the newspapers, and it went on from there.’
Chomsky was 16 In 1945 when the Hiroshima bomb hit, an event that impassioned the schoolboy further: ‘I was at a Hebrew-speaking summer camp when the news came. I found it shocking, and equally shocking to me was that nobody seemed to care.’
Gradually people did begin to care a great deal about what Chomsky had to say. Along with Shakespeare and the Bible, he is one of the ten most quoted sources within the humanities. His extensive work in linguistics and political activism, in a career spanning over half a century, means he is often described as the most important intellectual alive today.
Born Avram Noam Chomsky on 7 December 1928 in Philadelphia, he was the eldest of two boys. His parents were both scholars, and Chomsky recalls reading his father’s manuscripts on medieval Hebrew grammar as a child. It was perhaps here that the foundations for his later work in linguistics were laid. He married Carol Schatz in 1949 and they had three children – Diane, Avi and Harry. Carol, an accomplished linguist and educational specialist who taught at Harvard, died in 2008 at the age of 78.
Chomsky has often said that he more or less fell into the study of language, but became very much immersed in what he sees as ‘the core of our being’. When he started out at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT), there were no linguistics, philosophy or psychology departments. It’s hard to comprehend that Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures was essentially a hobby he had been working on when it was published, via a contact, in 1957. A review praised it at length, which then attracted the attention of key players in the field.
Syntactic Structures includes what is now the famous sentence: ‘Colorless green ideas sleep furiously’. An example of a sentence that is grammatically correct but makes absolutely no semantic sense, it was one of the ways in which Chomsky first demonstrated the distinction between syntax and semantics. Previously, most held the more behaviourist notion that language is acquired by learning, which simultaneously had a profound impact on the field of psychology. Chomsky argued that the human brain is in fact hard-wired for grammatical thought, and that all languages share common underlying rules – a concept he called a Universal Grammar.
Although this theory brought him great accolade as the founding father of modern linguistics, he had no shortage of critics. In a bid to disprove Chomsky, over the last 50 years linguists have attempted to come up with a context in which the sentence ‘Colorless green ideas sleep furiously’ makes semantic sense.
These days, Chomsky is still subject to criticism, as that inquisitive mind continues to speak up in its sharp but slightly satirical way on issues ranging from the Eurozone crisis to the situation in Syria to Mitt Romney. Chomsky even came off well in an interview with Sacha Baron Cohen’s spoof alias Ali G., where the two of them discussed the difference between bilingualism and bisexuality. He also recently described the current Republican candidates’ global-warming denial and anti-gay sentiments as ‘off the international spectrum of sane behaviour’.
US foreign policy is his current focus, and in some scathing attacks he has made no secret of what he thinks of Obama: ‘The Bush administration policy was to kidnap suspects, send them to secret prisons where they were not treated very nicely, as we know,’ he said in an interview with PublicServiceEurope.com. ‘But the Obama administration has escalated that policy so you don’t kidnap them, but you kill them. Now remember, these are suspects – even in the case of Osama bin Laden. It is plausible that he did plan and organise the 9/11 attacks, but “plausible” and “proven” are two different things.’
US politics aside, Chomsky’s career at the MIT does not sit very comfortably with liberal thinkers. He started there as Assistant Professor in 1955, and eventually became Associate Professor in 1976. Considered by many to be the epicentre of research for the US military, it has been hinted that his affiliation with MIT has forced him into direct collaboration with those he speaks so plainly against. But the scholar insists that he has always been left to get on with his work without any interference: ‘MIT is a very free and open place,’ he has said, adding that even though it receives funding from the Pentagon, the university has at the same time often been at the centre of anti-war campaigning.
In a recent article about MIT, journalist Ed Pilkington described it as a ‘wild place where the inventor of the web leads you through the work of a titan of modern architecture to one of the world’s foremost linguists and anti-war activists’. It is here that Chomsky sits to this day, at the age of 83, in a book-lined office in the department of linguistics. And even though one of Chomsky’s famous quotes suggests that we shouldn’t be looking for heroes but instead for good ideas, one cannot help but think of him as one: a living, breathing, thinking modern-day hero.