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Chomsky friends create birthday 'webschrift'

Institute Professor Noam Chomsky just got an unusual 70th birthday present -- what is probably the first-ever "webschrift."

Professor Chomsky, who is respected around the world for both his major contributions to linguistics and his political activism, inspired thousands of people to send essays, tributes and birthday wishes (while keeping it a secret from him) to a web site created and maintained by Marney Smyth, Ken Overton and Amy Brand at the MIT Press, with submissions catalogued by a host of guest editors.

Z Magazine, a publication dedicated to activism and social change, also collected about 2,000 submissions on its own web site.

The idea came about when one of Professor Chomsky's former students, Dr. Janet Fodor (PhD 1970 -- now a psycholinguist on the faculty of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York) and Professor Emeritus Samuel Jay Keyser were talking about what to do for Professor Chomsky's 70th birthday on December 7.

They realized it would be difficult to stage an event that could include everyone who would want to be present. The guest of honor is also not a fan of ceremonial occasions like traditional festschrifts or birthday parties; however, a written collection of essays and good wishes "would be the size of the Encyclopedia Britannica," said Professor Keyser, who eventually hit upon the idea of soliciting written contributions to post on a web site.

"The unlimited participation seemed to us to fit perfectly with Noam's non-exclusionary philosophy. Yet it would be a quiet, nonintrusive form of festivity," Professor Fodor said.

The contributions ranged from scholarly essays on syntax, semantics, philosophy, politics and other topics, to tributes from friends, colleagues, former students and others from around the world -- quite a few of whom have never met Professor Chomsky.

One who does know him quite well is MIT colleague Steven Pinker, professor of brain and cognitive science, who wrote: "As a teenager I decided to study cognitive science after reading the article about the 'Chom-skyan revolution' in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, and ever since then, practically all of my research and writing has been trying to answer questions you have posed.

"The vast insight and knowledge we have gained in the past 40 years about language, mind and human nature is surely among our species' proudest accomplishments. It would not have been possible without your original and courageous framing of the questions we should ask, how we should answer them, and what the answers might look like." Professor Pinker's books include the acclaimed The Language Instinct (1994).

Ray Jackendoff, another former Chomsky student (PhD 1969, now professor of linguistics at Brandeis University) shared "Some Things I Learned from Noam." These include some fundamental truths about language acquisition as well as some broader principles: "It is important to keep one's door open to the most naive, whether beginners or practitioners of other fields, as long as they want to learn and teach��������������������������� It is possible to write science in a way so true and so beautiful as to bring tears to the eyes of discerning readers."

Patrick J. Hayes, the John C. Pace, Jr. Visiting Eminent Scholar at the University of West Florida's Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, contributed a fable about mysterious Stonehenge-like "Chomsky Stones."

"One of the oldest is actually a tower rather than a single stone. It stands absolutely alone surrounded by a flat plain, scoured clear by erosion. This tower is called the 'syntactic structure' for reasons which are now forgotten. The tower is used to this day by surveyors as a sighting mark against which to calibrate their instruments," he wrote in an essay titled "The Enigma of the Chomsky."

"One particularly significant collection, which many consider the finest and most impressive of all, is located in the Political Basin��������������������������� Since the political stones were first observed, there has been controversy surrounding them���������������������������"

There were many notes sent by people whom Professor Chomsky has influenced though never met, such as the one from Roger Lagass���.

"I am a French-Canadian elementary school teacher [and] human rights, political and antinuclear peace activist and father of three. I have really appreciated having your bright light shining out there in the world. It must not be easy being an American dissident and I admire you a lot," he wrote. "You are, in my view, a saint, an angel. Bless you and your struggle for a truer America and a more just world."

Professor Chomsky's secretary, Bev Stohl, last Tuesday placed on his desk a birthday card and notebooks with just the names of the MIT Press and Z Magazine webschrift contributors. She eagerly waited his reaction all day to the unusual gift, but in vain -- her boss glanced at it and put it in his briefcase.

When he got home, his wife, who was also in on the secret, asked about his gift, but when she realized he hadn't comprehended what it was, "she burst out laughing and then sort of walked me through it," Professor Chomsky said. "It's a pretty fat book [of names]��������������������������� It's kind of overwhelming."

Ms. Stohl was amused but not entirely surprised by his reaction. "It's hard for him to take in the fact that 'gee, I really am making a difference,'" she said.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 16, 1998.

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