Biography of Noam Chomsky, Writer and Father of Modern Linguistics

noam chomsky
Portrait of Noam Chomsky. Heuler Andrey / Getty Images

Noam Chomsky (born December 7, 1928) is an American linguist, philosopher, and political activist. His theories made the modern scientific study of linguistics possible. He is a leader in peace activism and opposition to U.S. foreign policy.

Fast Facts: Noam Chomsky

  • Full Name: Avram Noam Chomsky
  • Occupation: Linguistics theorist and political writer
  • Born: December 7, 1928 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • Spouse: Carol Doris Schatz (died 2008), Valeria Wasserman (married 2014)
  • Children: Aviva, Diane, Harry
  • Education: University of Pennsylvania and Harvard University
  • Selected Works: "Syntactic Structures" (1957), "Fateful Triangle" (1983), "Manufacturing Consent" (1988), "Understanding Power" (2002)

Childhood

Noam Chomsky's parents, William and Elsie, were Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants. William fled Russia in 1913 to avoid conscription into the army. He worked in Baltimore sweatshops upon arriving in the U.S. After university education, William joined the Gratz College faculty in Philadelphia. Elsie was born in Belarus and became a teacher.

Growing up deeply enmeshed in Jewish culture, Noam Chomsky learned Hebrew as a child. He took part in family discussions of the politics of Zionism, the international movement supporting the development of a Jewish nation.

Chomsky described his parents as typical Roosevelt Democrats, but other relatives introduced him to socialism and the politics of the far left. Noam Chomsky wrote his first article at age ten about the dangers of the spread of fascism during the Spanish Civil War. Two or three years later, he began identifying himself as an anarchist.

Education and Early Career

Noam Chomsky enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania at age 16. He paid for his education by teaching Hebrew. For some time, frustrated with the university education, he considered dropping out and moving to a kibbutz in Palestine. However, meeting Russian-born linguist, Zeilig Harris changed his education and career. Influenced by the new mentor, Chomsky decided to major in theoretical linguistics.

Setting himself up in opposition to the prevailing behaviorist theories of linguistics, Chomsky attended Harvard University as a Ph.D. student from 1951 to 1955. His first academic article, "Systems of Syntactic Analysis," appeared in The Journal of Symbolic Logic.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) hired Noam Chomsky as an assistant professor in 1955. There, he published his first book, "Syntactic Structures." In the work, he discusses a formal theory of linguistics that distinguishes between syntax, the structure of language, and semantics, the meaning. Most academic linguists either dismissed the book or were openly hostile to it. Later, it was recognized as a volume that revolutionized the scientific study of linguistics.

noam chomsky
Lee Lockwood / Getty Images

In the early 1960s, Chomsky argued against language as learned behavior, a theory promoted by the famed psychologist B.F. Skinner. He believed that theory failed to account for creativity in human linguistics. According to Chomsky, humans aren't born as a blank slate when it comes to language. He believed the necessary range of rules and structures for creating grammar are innate in the human mind. Without the presence of those basics, Chomsky thought creativity was impossible.

Anti-War Activist

Beginning in 1962, Noam Chomsky joined protests against the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. He began speaking publicly at small gatherings and published the anti-war essay "The Responsibility of Intellectuals" in "The New York Review of Books" in 1967. He collected his political writing in the 1969 book "American Power and the New Mandarins." Chomsky followed it with four more political books in the 1970s.

Chomsky helped form the anti-war intellectual collective RESIST in 1967. Among the other founding members were clergyman William Sloane Coffin and poet Denise Levertov. He collaborated with Louis Kampf to teach undergraduate courses on politics at MIT. In 1970, Chomsky visited North Vietnam to lecture at the Hanoi University of Science and Technology and then toured refugee camps in Laos. The anti-war activism earned him a place on President Richard Nixon's list of political opponents.

vietnam war protest 1967
1967 Anti-War Rally in Washington, D.C. Leif Skoogfors / Getty Images

Modern Linguistics Pioneer

Noam Chomsky continued to expand and update his theories of language and grammar in the 1970s and 1980s. He introduced a framework of what he called "principles and parameters."

The principles were basic structural features universally present in all of the natural languages. They were the material that was natively present in a child's mind. The presence of these principles helped explain the rapid acquisition of language facility in young children.

noam chomsky
Ulf Andersen / Getty Images

Parameters were the optional materials that can provide variance in linguistic structure. Parameters could impact word order in sentences, the sounds of language, and many other elements that make languages different from each other.

Chomsky's shift in the paradigm of language study revolutionized the field. It impacted other areas of study like ripples produced by a stone dropped in a pond. Chomsky's theories were very important in the development of both computer programming and the study of cognitive development.

Later Political Work

In addition to his academic work in linguistics, Noam Chomsky remained committed to his standing as a prominent political dissident. He opposed the U.S. support of the Contras in their fight against the Nicaraguan Sandinista government in the 1980s. He visited with workers' organizations and refugees in Managua and lectured on the intersection between linguistics and politics.

Chomsky's 1983 book "The Fateful Triangle" argued that the U.S. government used the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for its own ends. He visited Palestinian territories in 1988 to witness the impact of the Israeli occupation.

noam chomsky palestinian protest gaza
Noam Chomsky speaking at a Palestinian protest against Israel in Gaza in 2012. Mahmud Hams / Getty Images

Among the other political causes that drew Chomsky's attention were the fight for East Timor independence in the 1990s, the Occupy movement in the U.S., and efforts to abolish nuclear weapons. He also applies his theories of linguistics to help explain the impact of the media and propaganda in political movements.

Retirement and Recognition

Noam Chomsky officially retired from MIT in 2002. However, he continued to conduct research and hold seminars as an emeritus faculty member. He continues to deliver lectures around the world. In 2017, Chomsky taught a politics course at the University of Arizona in Tucson. He became a part-time professor there in the linguistics department.

noam chomsky
Rick Friedman / Getty Images

Chomsky received honorary doctorate degrees from institutions around the world including the University of London, University of Chicago, and Delhi University. He's often named as one of the most influential intellectuals of the latter half of the 20th century. He earned the 2017 Sean MacBride Peace Prize from the International Peace Bureau.

Legacy

Noam Chomsky is recognized as the "father of modern linguistics." He is also one of the founders of cognitive science. He has published more than 100 books ranging across the disciplines of linguistics, philosophy, and politics. Chomsky is one of the most prominent critics of U.S. foreign policy and one of the most frequently cited scholars in academia.

Sources

  • Chomsky, Noam. Who Rules the World? Metropolitan Books, 2016.
  • Chomsky, Noam, Peter Mitchell, and John Schoeffel. Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky. The New Press, 2002.