World-Renowned Linguist Noam Chomsky Joins UA Faculty

Noam Chomsky outside of Old Main at the UA.(Photo: John de Dios)

Noam Chomsky outside of Old Main at the UA.(Photo: John de Dios)

Chomsky will serve as a laureate professor in the Department of Linguistics in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.


World-renowned linguist and social critic Noam Chomsky, who has been a regular guest speaker and teacher at the University of Arizona over the past five years, is joining the campus as a faculty member.

Chomsky has been hired by the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences as a laureate professor in the Department of Linguistics. He will also hold the title of Agnese Nelms Haury Chair in the Agnese Nelms Haury Program in Environment and Social Justice. As part of his part-time faculty appointment, Chomsky will teach, give public lectures and be available to meet with students. Chomsky starts this month and will begin teaching in spring 2018.

Considered the founder of modern linguistics, Chomsky is one of the most cited scholars in modern history and has written more than 100 books, including the groundbreaking "Syntactic Structures," "Language and Mind," "Aspects of the Theory of Syntax" and "The Minimalist Program," each of which has made distinct contributions to the development of the field. He has received numerous awards, including the Kyoto Prize in Basic Sciences, the Helmholtz Medal and the Ben Franklin Medal in Computer and Cognitive Science.

Chomsky's work also has influenced the fields of cognitive science, philosophy, psychology, computer science, mathematics, childhood education and anthropology. Applications of his work can be found in everyday life. He formulated the algorithm "context-free grammar," which is part of most computer programming languages, as well as programs that appear to understand language, such as Siri. He also has challenged traditional notions of learning, emphasizing how much knowledge and behavior is "built in" to the child’s brain.

One of the most influential public intellectuals in the world, Chomsky has been the subject of seven biographies, has been interviewed countless times in popular media, and has appeared in over 20 films and documentaries.

"That Noam Chomsky would choose to come to the University of Arizona to write, teach and engage us in discussions of global importance speaks volumes of our campus, and we look forward to benefiting from his unmatched expertise and perspective," said John Paul Jones III, dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.

"Whether leading an advanced graduate seminar on theories of language — most of which bear his name — or by engaging undergraduates in discussions of contemporary economic inequalities, Noam's keen intellect, gentle presence and unwavering commitment to the wider social good is always in evidence," Jones said. "I'm delighted to be able to announce his arrival this fall."

Mary Grier — a trustee of the estate of Agnes Nelms Haury, for whom the UA's Haury Program is named — also expressed her excitement over Chomsky's appointment.

Noam Chomsky chats with linguistics department head Natasha Warner and linguistics graduate students Maya Klein and Yan Chen.

Noam Chomsky chats with linguistics department head Natasha Warner and linguistics graduate students Maya Klein and Yan Chen.

"The Haury Trust is thrilled that students, faculty and Tucsonans generally will have the opportunity to interact with one of the most influential scholars and thought leaders of the past 75 years. This is a rare privilege that may prove transformational in ways that we cannot presently imagine," she said.

Chomsky's previous visits to the UA with his wife, Valeria Wasserman Chomsky, set the stage for his decision to join the faculty.

"We've very much come to appreciate the intellectual environment and the lifestyle," Chomsky said. "The linguistics department, which is excellent, happens to be full of former students of mine. In general, we felt that that the UA would be a good place to work and think and interact with people we like and can work with."

The charms of Tucson made the decision to relocate even easier.

"We fell in love with Tucson — the mountains, the desert," Chomsky said. "Tucson has an atmosphere that is peaceful and manageable."

UA Connections

Chomsky's connections to UA linguistics faculty are deep and long-standing. Several UA linguists were his students or departmental fellows at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Chomsky worked since 1955 as a professor of linguistics, then professor emeritus.

Chomsky says he is looking forward to regularly teaching undergraduate students again, which he hadn't done for about 10 years until this past spring when he co-taught, with geography professor emeritus Marv Waterstone, a large UA elective course on politics and global issues that attracted 250 students. Nearly 250 community members also enrolled in that course, through the UA's Humanities Seminars Program.

Natasha Warner, head of the Department of Linguistics, is thrilled to have Chomsky join the faculty.

"Chomsky established modern linguistics. He's an awe-inspiring thinker," she said. "The opportunity for UA linguistics students to learn from him on a regular basis is simply astounding. I am especially excited about the opportunity for undergraduates to learn about language and linguistics from him."

Yan Chen, a graduate student in the Department of Linguistics, called Chomsky an inspiration.

"Professor Chomsky's insights into and analysis of language has inspired so many of us, and in fact he is the one who got me interested in linguistics in the first place when I was an undergraduate student," Chen said.

The Chomsky Effect

Chomsky is credited with revolutionizing the linguistics field by introducing the Chomsky hierarchy, generative grammar and the concept of a universal grammar, which underlies all human speech and is based in the innate structure of the mind/brain.

"The importance of Chomsky's work cannot be overstated," said Ryan Smith, a linguistics graduate student. "I am extremely excited that he will be joining our department not only because of his work in establishing our discipline, but also because of his continued important research into the nature of language and the human mind."

An ardent free speech advocate, Chomsky is famous for his political commentary and has published and lectured widely on U.S. foreign policy, Mideast politics, terrorism, democratic society and war. His media criticism includes the 1988 book "Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media."

Chomsky also has addressed issues such as political engagement, environmental destruction, and the rights of Indigenous populations. 

Chomsky's fame has extended into popular culture, leading such fans as Bono of U2 to describe him as the "Elvis of academia." The Noam Chomsky Facebook page has more than 1.2 million followers.

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