On October 13th, 2017, I sat in front of the TV watching the 9 o’clock news, and learned that Bob Dylan would be awarded that year’s Nobel Prize for literature. Part of me was disappointed that Haruki Murakami was not chosen again. But the other part of me was glad because Dylan’s songs in the early 60s were the songs of my youth.
While half-listening to the newscaster, I thought of a person who would deserve the prize. His name is Noam Chomsky. He’s renowned as a philosopher, linguist and social critic. Particularly, he is known as the originator of Universal Grammar, a hypothesis that provoked a whole new perspective on language. If I may use the word “God” lightly like many Japanese do these days, he is the God in the field of linguistics.
On October 31st, 1996, I had the opportunity to go and listen to Chomsky speak at Columbia University. The reason I remember the exact date is because on that very day the first snow of the season fell in New York. Anyway, my friend and I arrived at the lecture hall 30 minutes earlier, and waited with great anticipation.
The session began on time, and the MC introduced two speakers. To our surprise, the first speaker was Chomsky himself. Usually, the most important person is the last speaker, isn’t it? In a detached manner Chomsky came up onto the stage and began to speak. Without using any gestures or emphatic tone of voice, he just spoke calmly and gently, which is his unchanged style. His English was smooth, beautiful, just perfect. Although his topic that day had nothing to do with language, the audience was quite satisfied just because they were able to hear Chomsky speak live.
The second speaker was a young man from East Timor. East Timor is a small Southeast Asian country which was being occupied by Indonesia at that time. He began to speak. But his voice was trembling and he had a strong accent. He used present tense for all verbs without the third-person singular suffix. We had to stop and think after almost every word of his. But gradually we got used to his accent and habit of speaking, and began to understand why he was there. The tremble in his voice was not due to nervousness but to his memories of the brutal tortures by the Indonesian Army. We noticed his right ear was half gone. He told how he had managed to escape from the concentration camp. There he was on that stage to let as many people as possible know what was going on on that small island. Towards the end of his speech, he said he wanted to go back to his own country to fight for peace and freedom. His last words were unforgettable: he said he’d be willing to lose his left ear to help attain the independence of his homeland. When he left the stage, the audience gave him an even bigger applause than when Chomsky left.
It was then that I understood why the famed scholar was the preliminary speaker, and the anonymous young man was the main speaker. His words were words from his heart and his voice was the voice of his heart. That’s why his speech was powerful and persuasive in spite of his poor broken English. As my favorite saying goes, what comes from the heart goes to the heart.
On May 20th, 2002, East Timor declared independence.