LINGUIST List 3.445

Sat 30 May 1992

All: A Tribute to Zellig Harris

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  1. "Bruce E. Nevin", Zellig Harris

Message 1: Zellig Harris

Date: Fri, 29 May 92 12:25:08 EDZellig Harris
From: "Bruce E. Nevin" <>
Subject: Zellig Harris

Last Thursday night, May 21, Zellig Harris died in his sleep after a
pleasant working day. He was 88 years old. He was born in 1904 in
Byelorussia. I am told that he chose the name Zellig Sabbettai when his
family immigrated to the United states when he was four. I like to
think that the semantics of happiness and steadfastness were on his
mind. Certainly they were keynotes of his life. I would guess that his
parents chose the name Harris.

When he died, he was just finishing a book on politics that he had been
planning for most of his life. With the 1992 publication of his book _A
Theory of Language and Information_ (Oxford), he had wrapped up his
life's work on language, at least for the time being. He seems to have
felt at liberty to take up this other unfinished business. I understand
from Paul Mattick, Jr., who was Harris's friend and neighbor for many
years in New York, that this last book describes how to get from
capitalism to socialism. This is surely not a conventional take on
either capitalism or socialism, Harris was an anarchist. Oxford was
interested in publishing it, and he had also talked with Cambridge.

There is no memorial planned, beyond something very private for his
family. However, there is some discussion beginning of a public meeting
with scientific content. I would hope that the festschrift that Haj
Ross called for in the LSA meetings some years ago might at last come
into being.

Harris described himself as a methodologist rather than a linguist.
This could be misleading. He always said that his work was not part of
linguistics as it is institutionally defined, and that linguists would
not be interested in his work, though people interested in language
would be.

Nonetheless, he was surely a linguist by most of the operational
definitions one might come up with. He had done extensive fieldwork on
a variety of language. When he was doing the final revision of the 1992
Oxford book, he undertook to test the theory of language against every
language of which he had some control, 44 languages. He spent months
reading grammars from morning to night, and evaluating whether his
theory had a reasonable account for what he found there. He was clear
that no scientific conclusions were warranted, and so no particular
notice of this check is given in the book, but he wanted to feel
reasonably secure that his conclusions were not idiosyncratic to
English, French, German, Korean, and the few other languages that had
been the primary bases for their development. He was pleased with the

His contributions to the field were numerous and weighty. He founded
the first linguistics department in the U.S. He introduced the
algebraic representations and abstract mathematical treatment which have
become so much norms of the field that it is difficult now to appreciate
how much he did so over the kicking and screaming protests of his peers.
He invented X-bar notation for immediate constituent analysis, though of
course not by that name, to cope with the well known weakness of IC
analysis with the head-of relation. He developed ways to accomodate
discontinuous morphemes into grammatical analysis. He charted a way out
of difficulties experienced by Bloch and others in phonology, by saying
that contrast rather than phonetic identity is the basis for setting up
phonemes, a ghost that has risen to haunt generative phonology more than
once. He invented string analysis as a complement (not rival) to
immediate constituent analysis. Their complementarity with respect to
the head-of problem is the basis of Joshi's Tree-Adjoining Grammars
(TAGs). He invented transformational analysis in context of developing
discourse analysis to get at the information content of texts. Other
contributions await recognition and exploitation in the field of
linguistics as institutionalized today, and in other fields. Obvious
examples include sublanguage analysis and sublanguage grammar, operator
grammar based on word dependency, discourse analysis for information
content, and his theory of information as an account of a central aspect
of semantics. For example, string grammar and its natural extension
into transformational grammar is the basis of the very successful work
of Naomi Sager and others at NYU in information formatting of
sublanguage texts, applied there mainly to medical informatics. Stephen
Johnson has implemented a system for representing the information
content of texts, based on operator grammar. Successes of this sort are
little noticed within linguistics.

It is characteristic of Harris that there was no vanity or self
importance in him. He knew that his work was of lasting importance, and
treated it as such, but he was no guru or empire builder seeking
followers, and would not accept any such role being projected onto him.
Those students who sought entree to linguistics as a social institution
in academia were bound to be disappointed. However, he could scarcely
be blamed for their disappointment. He did not provide such entree, nor
did he pretend to, and in my hearing actively discouraged students who
imagined work with him would further their ambitions in the field.
Once, in my role as TA for John Fought, I prepared a lecture on Harris's
approach to syntax and semantics. As we were setting out for the
lecture hall, we encountered Harris, and I blurted out "I'm about to
give a lecture on your theory to John's class." (John, with
characteristic wry humor, asked if he wanted to take anything back.)
Harris bemusedly questioned whether anyone would be interested in what
he was doing. Nonetheless, when he gave a public lecture on "The two
structures of language: report and paraphrase" in 1969 or 1970, the
large auditorium (I think it was in the Furness building) was filled to
capacity, and the critique by John Corcoran, published later in the
volume _Transformationelle Analyse_ edited by Senta Ploetz, was also
well attended. Broad attendance on and acclaim for his work could
easily have been his, had he chosen it. That is simply not where his
ambitions lay.

A clue as to the basis of this choice against fame and influence may
perhaps be found in his advice to a student starting out in his first
teaching position, many years ago. Don't invite anybody over for
dinner, he said, and don't accept any invitations. If you get involved
in the social life of an academic, you won't be able to get any work
done. The work came first.

Harris was always an intensely loyal man to his friends and family. The
consequences, when combined with his laissez-faire anarchism, were not
always happy. His friend and close colleague of many years, Henry Hiz,
was much more concerned with building a Formal Linguistics Program as an
institution. The disparity of character could be devastating to

I studied with Harris from 1966 through 1970. I was an undergraduate
much of that time, but that did not matter to him. He had a sink-or-swim
approach like that attributed to Sapir (Darnell 1990), except that his
seminars were of course focussed on theory rather than the data of, say,
Athabaskan. He would come in to his seminar and just start talking
about what he was working on. When I started with him, this was the
work that resulted in his 1968 book, _Mathematical Structures of
Language_ (Wiley). The process was not a lecture or monologue, but a
continuing conversation with his students, trying out alternatives,
posing and working out problems for a mathematical characterization of
language. After a while, with intensive reading outside, one began to
catch on and to participate.

I recall telling him at the end of one seminar meeting in my first year
that I would try to disprove his theory. This troubled him not a bit.
I worked up a problem in Modern Greek that I thought might be
troublesome for his approach. (I had lived in Greece for a couple of
years, and spoke the language, but I worked with an informant for this
project.) When my results turned out actually to corroborate the point
I had intended to challenge, he merely thanked me for the data on Greek.
A year or two later, I had come up with a proposal to analyze
definitions in a dictionary to extract semantic primitives by a form of
componential analysis, much as Martha Evens and now others have done.
Although the notion of semantic features seems inimical in concept and
method to his work, he said (and this is an exact quote) "Others have
tried this and have failed, but you are welcome to try." I offer this in
refutation of the sometimes heard view that Harris was dictatorial. I
ran into conflicts in such matters with Hiz, never with Harris.

I have also heard it asked why he never retorted to attacks on his work.
I think it did not matter to him. He did not expect his methods and
results to be understood and taken up by everyone in the field of
linguistics. Maybe his attitude differed in the 1940s, when he wrote
the structural restatements and the manuscript eventually published as
_Methods in Structural Linguistics_. (BTW, the title was to have said
"Descriptive" but the publisher substituted the buzzword "Structural." I
recall him saying, amusedly, "I don't remember whether they asked me or
not.") Maybe his expectations of the field changed after some of
Chomsky's followers began making him out to be the bad guy. I don't
think so, based on his writings and on the testimony of some who were
his students then. I never heard him comment on the commonplace
attribution to Chomsky of the discovery of transformational grammar and
the "transformational revolution." There is a passage in _The State of
the Art_ (1968) in which Hockett attributes to Harris "nothing, or a
long silence, after 1957," showing ignorance not only of things like
string analysis, for which he might be excused, but even ignoring the
1965 paper Transformational Theory prominently published in _Language_.
I showed this passage to Harris, and he shrugged. It did not matter.

In particular, I never saw any evidence that Harris opposed or blocked
Chomsky's ambitions. In my experience it would have been entirely out
of character for him. For example, it was Harris who proposed Chomsky
to speak in his stead to the 1962 International Congress. A similar
canard regarding Bernard Bloch has recently been laid to rest in an
editorial in Language. One must I think be alert to the social
psychology that leads some people to rewrite history so that their
avatar is depicted as an embattled hero. Now, an old Indian friend once
told me that one cannot point a finger without having three other
fingers of the same hand pointing back, so I hasten to add that this is
not the picture I intend to paint here of Harris. He accomplished what
he intended to quite well, thank you very much, and seems to have been
quite happy in the process. The point is precisely that he seemed in no
way embattled by attacks and uncomprehending misconstruals of his work.

And uncomprehending misconstruals abound. Frawley's review of _A
Grammar of English on Mathematical Principles_ (GEMP) is a good example.
He identifies Harris's operator grammar with predicate calculus, though
Harris is at pains to delineate critical differences between language
(a fortiori operator grammar) and language-like mathematical systems,
including predicate calculus. Frawley can see in this comprehensive
grammar only an attempt to do 1960s generative grammar in 1980, because
he is unable to step out of the Generativist paradigm so as to understand
Harris's work on its own terms. Another review (Eric Wheeler, 1984 in
_Computers in the Humanities_) asserted that Harris's grammar was unable
to account for certain familiar semantic problems--middle voice, the
semantics of find vs. seek, and quantifier scope in examples like
"someone was opposed by everyone." In my review (_Computational
Linguistics_ in 1984) I showed how Harris did in fact account of each of
these problems in the book. Michael Kac, in his review of Harris's
selected writings, asked "why bother?" And indeed, from within the
Generativist paradigm that must be the only plausible question. It is
only in setting aside paradigmatic blinkers that one can see, having
these writings in one place, how consistent and self coherent Harris's
program has been over the years. Transformational grammar was not a
revolutionary break but part of a continuous evolution.

I will mention only one other misconception about Harris's work, not
because it is in any way fundamental but because it is so commonplace.
I probably will be greeted with disbelief when I say that discovery
procedures were not his aim. (Jim McCawley's witticism about Harris and
discovery procedures in the collection traditionally circulated in May
really reverses the roles of the teller and the butt of the joke.) It
is not hard to see how linguists have come to this mistaken belief.
Discovery procedures are an abiding fixture for linguistics as
institutionally defined. When _Methods_ was published, linguists sought
an aid to fieldwork and writing of linguistic descriptions. Now,
discovery procedures are institutionalized as a whipping boy. This has
colored perceptions of Harris's intentions and results.

For Harris, it was certainly of interest and value when redundancy on
one level of linguistic representation could be used in a practical way
to determine boundaries of objects on the next, but this was a
corroborative byproduct, not an aim. The "constructional procedure"
described in the 1955 paper From Phoneme to Morpheme was implemented in
FORTRAN in the early 1960s and proven to work, and Ralph Grishman has
had some preliminary success in implementing programs to discover word
classes and rules of sublanguage grammar from sublanguage texts. But in
general Harris did not think that discovery procedures were feasible.
In particular, he told me he thought that grammatical analysis could not
be done solely with a corpus or by asking informants, one had to control
the language oneself. And then one had to work over the data to tease
out pattern and wrestle it into coherent form, a lengthy and demanding
process, as probably most of us know from experience. So much for the
popularized image of feeding in a corpus, turning a crank, and having a
grammar reel out the other end.

In the introduction to _Methods in Structural Linguistics_, Harris
states clearly that these methods are not discovery procedures. He
accepts that one uses many means to come up with proposals for
describing what is going on in a language--hunches, guesses, heuristic
rules of thumb, typological generalizations, proposed universals,
comparison with related languages or earlier stages of the language, and
so on, more art than science (or rather, more art than engineering).
Harris was acutely aware of the danger of swamping one's control of the
language by growing familiarity with marginal examples. Language is
after all a social institution, continuously in change as it is
constantly recreated in the crucible of use. The aim of the methods was
not to substitute for these informal ways of coming up with possible
analyses, but to verify, for any given result, whether the result had a
valid relation to the data of the language. Of those who have actually
read the book, how many have said (and some have in fact said to me) "he
didn't really mean that." But if nothing else, Harris was always careful
to say exactly what he meant.

This concern for verification arises out of a deeper concern which
becomes more explicit in Harris's later work. This is a critical point
for linguistics. For any other science, there is a standpoint external
to the science domain for its metascience. In particular, practitioners
in physics, chemistry, even in mathematics, rely on the "background
vernacular" of language to ensure communication about shared meanings
and ultimately to validate the relation of conclusions, however reached,
to the observations on which they are based. Not so for a science of
language. Harris recognized and accepted that there is no vantage point
outside of language from which to describe language. And, observably,
each language contains its own metalanguage. I'll repeat that, because
it is I think a key to understanding what Harris was about, and because
it is easy to overlook its importance. There is no vantage point
outside of language from which to describe language. By contrast,
Generativist theory postulates a universal metalanguage, external to
language, that is part of one's biological endowment. (I personally do
not find this biologicist, neophrenologist doctrine of mental organs
credible, but the issue rests not on opinion but on facts yet to be
determined.) This stance seems to me perfectly consonant with the
argument made by Stephen Anderson in "Why phonology isn't natural." One
cannot derive linguistic structure from the findings of some study
bearing a metascience relation to linguistics.

Harris was interested in how language can carry or transmit information,
and this is the thread that underlies the really remarkable consistency
in his work over more than 50 years. Intuitively, we know that
differences in form correlate with differences in meaning, but the
correlation is messy and inconsistent in the observed data of language
(say, in a body of writings or of phonemic transcriptions, including
whatever utterances the investigator may come up with in the ad hoc
search for examples). What Harris found was how this messy,
inconsistent stream of words can be the product of two concurrent
systems: a system of word dependencies that correlates with perceptions
in a subject-matter domain such as a science subfield, and a system of
reductions that changes word shapes (often to zero), motivated in part
by issues of redundancy and efficiency and in part by historically
contingent social convention. The reductions introduce degeneracies
such as ambiguity and paraphrase, and otherwise obscure the correlation
of form with meaning, but without destroying that correlation.

Given that structure (differences of form) correlates with meaning, it
is of critical importance that the machinery of description not import
any structure extraneous to that found in language. Harris's endeavor
was always, then, to determine a "least grammar," a description that
required an absolute minimum of primitive objects and relations. Any
additional objects or relations in the description introduce extrinsic
structure that obscures the informational structure in language. This
could be the basis for a telling critique of various other theories of
language. Harris chose not to make such a critique. When I asked him
once about certain aspects of Generativist theory, he would only
comment, with evidence of mild amusement, that it did seem to be

Like his teacher, Sapir, Harris had an interest in problems of
international communication and an international auxiliary language. (A
paper on this appeared in a 1962 volume on avoiding World War III.
Remember WWIII, everyone?) And like Sapir and Bloomfield he had in
particular a long standing interest in international cooperation and
communication in science. This culminated in _The Form of Information
in Science: analysis of an immunology sublanguage_ (with Michael
Gottfried, Tom Ryckman, and others, 1989, John Benjamins). This book
describes the grammar of the sublanguage of immunology during a specific
period in the development of that field, based on discourse analysis of
sublanguage texts from that period and adequate for making explicit the
information structures in arbitrary other texts in that sublanguage.
The analysis shows how the structure of the sublanguage changed
concurrently with a change in immunologists' perceptions in the domain
of their science. A difference in informational structure correlates
with a difference in meaning. The informational structures that are
clearly represented in the binary array resulting from discourse
analysis are still present in the actual form of the source texts as
written albeit obscured under reductions in word shape, some motivated
by considerations of informational efficiency and avoidance of
redundancy, some dictated by conventions of language use as a human
social institution.

Harris arranged his life so as to enhance the autonomy of his work. I
understand that his kibbutz in Israel is a wealthy one, to which members
give their assets and income, and which in turn supports them in their
needs. I believe that the kibbutz purchased his apartment building on
Charles Street. Until his retirement, he held an endowed chair at Penn,
the Benjamin Franklin Professorship in linguistics. He was Principal
Investigator for a long series of grants from the NSF, NIMH, and other
agencies whose committees and referees found his work of continuing
value. Throughout his life he was involved with scientists and science.
His wife was a physicist at the University of Jerusalem, and had been
Albert Einstein's assistant at Princeton. A brother was an immunologist
(he is an author of some of the work analyzed in the 1989 book). He
felt that the rough and tumble of polemic attack and retort was
inappropriate for science, and would not participate in it. That too
would be a distraction from the work.

After one of the Bampton Lectures at Columbia in 1986, a young member of
the audience approached him and asked what he would take up if he had
another lifetime before him. He mentioned poetry, especially the longer
works of 19th century poets like Browning. He mentioned music. And he
mentioned sign language.

He had a long and very productive life. He had brought his life's work
to a successful culmination. With the completion of his book on
politics, I imagine Death coming to him, as to the chess playing knight
in The Seventh Seal, and him saying "OK, I'm ready now."

It was a privilege to know him and to learn from him. He is an abiding

	Bruce Nevin
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