Next Noam Chomsky to Be Selected
SpecGram Correspondent Morris Swadesh III
Speculative Grammarian has learned that preparations are already underway for the selection of the next Noam Chomsky. Although the current Noam Chomsky (privately referred to as Noam III) has not yet announced when he will step down, it is believed that he has already made the decision and that he may abdicate as early as next week. The powerbrokers of Generative Linguistics wish to be prepared, and probably hope to avoid the atmosphere of crisis that has occurred twice before, when both Noam I and Noam II left the position unexpectedly.
In spite of the lack of official announcements, there can be no doubt that the Council of Generativism has already issued invitations, with only the date still unspecified, for the assembly which will choose Noam IV and present him (or her) to the public as the face of Linguistics.
Those versed in the history of Linguistics will doubtless remember how the field was shaken to its core when the original Noam Chomsky abdicated, suddenly and unexpectedly, in 1975, citing growing pessimism that “X-bar” theory could solve the ultimate problems of syntactic analysis. Chomsky took up full-time political commentary, and the remnant of linguists was left in rudderless confusion. The emergence of Linguistics as an independent academic discipline was still tenuous and the most sober-minded linguists realized that nothing less than the future of the field was at stake. An unprecedented emergency council was held in an undisclosed location on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, bringing together luminaries of the discipline to address the crisis. No official attendance list has ever been distributed, but it was often said that the combined Curriculum Vitae of the assembly encompassed nearly 90% of the field’s scholarly publications for the previous two decades.
Figure 1: The Original Noam Chomsky (Noam I)
The fact that the proceedings were documented only in the form of mimeographs distributed by post among the participants has long been forgiven by those few linguists who were excluded, because the council did its work well and Linguistics was saved. It was decided that a new Noam must emerge to take the place of the retiring one, to stand in the breach as standard-bearer for the field. Furthermore, the council contrived to have the new Noam take the previous one’s place surreptitiously—so stealthily, in fact, that neither the general public nor the Administration of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology ever discovered the switch. Seamlessly, a new “Noam Chomsky” assumed the leadership of generativism, and the field forged ahead. Disaster had been averted.
Specifically, the title of Noam Chomsky was bestowed upon Cyrus Brockmorton, a pipefitter whose two qualifications seem to have been that he was married to a niece of linguist Zellig Harris and that he was a former high school classmate of the original Noam Chomsky (now known among insiders as Noam I). Coincidentally, Brockmorton also happened also to be almost a dead ringer for the retiring master. In spite of his excellent pedigree, Brockmorton had previously shown absolutely no interest in generativism, nor in fact particularly in Linguistics at all. Undeterred by his dearth of experience, however, the newly-appointed Noam II threw himself headlong into Linguistics. In public, he initially did what amounted to stage impersonations of his predecessor, never opening his mouth except to quote lengthy, memorized passages from Chomsky’s writings. After a period of intense study, though, Noam II astonished the field at a 1979 lecture series in Pisa, unveiling an agenda of his own for Linguistics. It was here that Noam II really took up the mantle of leadership in the field, announcing a radical “Principles and Parameters” theory, which he published in 1980 under the title Lectures on Government and Binding. Linguistics experienced a renaissance and further consolidated its position within academia as the only scientific approach to human language.
Figure 2: Noam II
Tragically, Noam II was cut down in the prime of his career. Government and Binding was a monumental success, but cracks were undermining the superficial unity of the field. The defeat of generative semantics in the 1970s left scars which never properly healed, and further cracks in the foundations arose in the 1980s through the challenges of alternate frameworks such as Relational Grammar, Lexical-Functional Grammar, and Generalized Phrase Structure Grammar. True, these alternative approaches were mostly short-lived, but they represented a growing undercurrent of discontent. In 1988 Noam II prepared a desperate unity speech, intending to plead for harmonious reconciliation during a plenary session of the LSA annual meetings. But he never gave the speech: from the first session of the meetings it was clear that open warfare was breaking out, and Noam II was caught in the academic crossfire as competing factions battled wantonly for supremacy. No one is sure of the exact moment, but at some point during the meetings, Noam II cracked under the strain of watching the discipline that had adopted him tear itself apart. He walked out of the event, psychologically broken and embittered, and never returned to the field.
Once again, Linguistics had lost its standard-bearer, and once again, an emergency meeting was convened. This time the assembled body of luminaries formalized itself again under the name Council of Generativism, and adopted selection procedures designed to ensure that no one faction had the upper hand in choosing the next paramount leader. Though Linguistics was by this time well-entrenched throughout the academic world, care had to be taken that a smooth leadership change would maintain stability. Perhaps the delegates also sensed that this would not be the last time they would be called upon.
After the upheaval of the 1980s, though, choosing a third Noam Chomsky proved to be divisive. Joan Bybee was nearly elected, with some progressive generativists arguing that it was time to heal the rifts within the field, and hoping that Bybee would bring the emerging and potentially threatening functionalist movement back into the fold of the mainstream. But this bold attempt to counter factionalism failed, and instead a hard-line conservative Generativist, the little-known Lester Brockmorton, won the day. A few critics privately suggested that Lester Brockmorton was selected primarily because he, like Cyrus Brockmorton, looked a lot like Noam I, and possibly also because he was in fact Cyrus Brockmorton’s younger brother—he had obtained his Ph.D. only two years earlier under his brother’s tutelage at MIT. But the Council put on a brave face and Linguistics marched forward with a show of unity. Again, the general public never suspected that anything had changed, and MIT continued paying Chomsky’s salary cheerfully.
Figure 3: Noam III
Just as Noam II had done, Noam III spent his initial months representing the field primarily in a telegenic way, regurgitating and defending accepted doctrine while avoiding specific questions. But, also like his predecessor, he studied diligently and emerged from this initial period with his own vision for the direction of the field. Noam III laid out the essentials of his signature approach in a widely-circulated (but never published) manuscript entitled “The Minimalist Program.” And while Noam I and Noam II had already established a reputation for adding a veneer of mathematics and scientific rigor to linguistics, Noam III’s new program took this to entirely new levels—Linguistics had surely reached the pinnacle of its development.
This brings us back to the present, when speculation is rampant as to what sort of person will be elected Noam IV.
There is significant speculation (and in some quarters, hope) that the committee may break with tradition and choose an entirely new look for Noam IV. Names which have been floated are John McWhorter, Dan Everett, and Deborah Tannen. However, others feel it likely that the obscure linguist Zellig Harris III is the inevitable candidate, as he has the familiar “Noam” look and belongs to the Harris family, which seems to be taking control of the title as a hereditary dynasty.
Figure 4: John McWhorter
Figure 5: Dan Everett
Figure 6: Deborah Tannen
Figure 7: Zellig Harris III
But hope remains among some linguists for major changes. Some likely Council delegates have said privately that they believe that the general public does not now remember that Noam Chomsky the linguist and Noam Chomsky the political activist were ever the same person. Thus, there should be no negative ramifications if the two start to look different, and in fact there might be positive benefits for the field, inasmuch as Noam Chomsky the political commentator has gradually faded into obscurity, and this could actually diminish Noam IV’s stature as primary representative of Linguistics, if anyone remembered that “Noam Chomsky” was once a single person, and not two.
As always, Speculative Grammarian’s readers can count on us to provide the most up to date and reliable reporting. When the Council convenes, we will not be in the room, but we’ll be watching all the signs. Check back often because Speculative Grammarian will almost certainly be the first to break the news when the next Noam Chomsky assumes the mantle of leadership of our field.
All images are licensed from Trey Jones, under CC BY 3.0, except for
the image of Daniel Everett, which is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.