LINGUIST List 3.445

Sat 30 May 1992

All: A Tribute to Zellig Harris

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  • "Bruce E. Nevin", Zellig Harris

    Message 1: Zellig Harris

    Date: Fri, 29 May 92 12:25:08 EDZellig Harris
    From: "Bruce E. Nevin" <bnevinccb.bbn.com>
    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 results.

    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 students.

    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 over-structured.

    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 inspiration.

    Bruce Nevin bnbbn.com