From The Telegraph:
In an almost empty hotel bar, around the corner from the British Museum, an 81-year-old American professor is sipping tea and talking in a monotone so muted I wonder whether he is having me on. I soon conclude that he isn’t; that he doesn’t do jokes; that he, Noam Chomsky, does not, in fact, possess a sense of humour. Sacha Baron Cohen came to the same conclusion when, as Ali G, he asked Chomsky: ‘How many words does you know, and what is some of them?’ Chomsky didn’t even smile, he simply informed his interviewer how many words the average Westerner knows, and then, as requested, revealed what is some of them. Baron Cohen’s question may have been amusing but it wasn’t entirely random. Chomsky found global fame in the Sixties, in the unlikely field of linguistics. He more or less founded the discipline, becoming to it what Freud became to psychoanalysis and Einstein to cosmology.
In contradiction of the prevailing ‘behaviourist’ view that language was learned, Chomsky argued that the human mind is actually hard-wired for grammatical thought. The way children successfully acquire their native language in so little time suggested, for him, that the structures of language were innate, rather than acquired, and that all languages shared common underlying rules. This he called Universal Grammar but don’t worry, I won’t be testing you later, and linguistics is not what this interview is about. Although I should perhaps add that the debate about language has moved on since Chomsky’s theories in the Sixties. And Chomsky has moved on, too. In fact he is better known these days as a political activist. The man the American Right love to hate. The American Left aren’t exactly wild about him either. As a self-styled anarchist and Enlightenment liberal, he collects political enemies the way sticky paper collects flies. You somehow imagine that a man with his rhetorical clout and reputation will have a booming voice, or at least some basic oratory skills. Yet here he is, barely 4ft away from me, and I am straining to hear him. It’s nothing to do with his age or health – he is a slender, fit looking, slightly stooped man with greying wavy hair, a diffident manner and a tendency to glance sideways at you through wire-rimmed glasses.