Linguistics Zellig Harris
by
Robert F. Barsky
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0145

Introduction

Zellig Harris (b. 1909–d. 1992) was a noted linguist whose work contributed to American anthropology, methodologies of scientific research, and linguistic information. In addition, he made contributions to worker self-management, Zionism, and efforts to transform capitalist society in the direction of scientific socialism. He is well known for his early work in Semitics, transformational grammar, and discourse analysis. Zellig Harris not only strove to advance the cause of socialist Zionism, but he also shaped the destinies of many influential thinkers, including Murray Eden, Nathan Glazer, Seymour Melman, Chester Rapkin, and his most famous student, Noam Chomsky. As a consequence, he exerted considerable influence upon crucial currents of 20th-century work, while fostering an inner circle of acolytes, friends, colleagues, and fellow travelers who have each contributed significantly to an array of fields and projects. He worked to revolutionize language studies, and, partly through his relationship with the mathematician Bruria Kaufman and his work with Avukah, a small but important Zionist student organization that advocated for strong Arab-Jewish relations (1925–1942), he had close relations with the physicist (and occasional social thinker) Albert Einstein. On the political front, he worked to update earlier versions of scientific socialism through careful study of industrial society, a passion he shared with Paul Mattick and the astronomer and social thinker Anton Pannekoek. And his work on Zionism, reflected in particular by his contributions to the idea of a nonstate region in Palestine that would be a homeland for suffering peoples around the world, retain a currency even today by the ambition and prescience of his approach.

Biography, Critical Assessments, and Obituaries

The only full-scale biography dedicated to Zellig Harris is Barsky 2011, which is best read in regard to the broader issues Barsky raises about Harris’s place in linguistics, politics, and Zionism. It offers an overview of the life and work of Zellig Harris that explores the three areas to which he contributed: linguistics, Zionism, and the transformation of capitalist society toward a version of scientific socialism. Watt 2005 provides an overview of Harris’s life. For contributions to the field of language studies, Bruce Nevin’s two-volume work The Legacy of Zellig Harris (Nevin 2002 and Nevin and Johnson 2002) is a crucial resource, particularly for specialists seeking specific details concerning the rise of Bloomfield-inspired American structuralist linguistics. (See also the video of a conference that was held by the contributors, with the same title.) Given how private a person he was, and how much he compartmentalized his work, it’s also interesting to look at the obituaries and tributes to him. For example, Hiż 1994 offers important details about Harris’s early contributions to Ugaritic texts and Phoenician dialects; Matthews 1992 helpfully distinguishes the “phases” of Harris’s career, Nevin 1992 offers a global assessment of Harris’s contributions as well as his legacy, and Watt 2005 offers the most lively description of Harris’s personality.

  • Barsky, Robert. 2011. Zellig Harris: From American linguistics to socialist Zionism. Cambridge, MA: MIT.

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    Barsky describes Harris’s work in language studies, along with his pioneering ideas about discourse analysis, structural linguistics, and information representation. He also discusses Harris’s part in Avukah, the pre-1948 Zionist movement. Harris’s views on capitalism, worker-owner relations, and worker self-management are explored as well, and Barsky shows how Harris, as mentor, teacher, and colleague, powerfully influenced figures who came to dominate many of the 20th century’s linguistic and political discussions, including the complex relations between Harris and Noam Chomsky.

  • Hiż, Henry. 1994. Zellig Harris. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 138.4.

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    Hiż’s biographical essay insists upon Harris’s refusal to enter into the raging debates about the goals of linguistic inquiry or about the nature of language capabilities. Hiż claims that as a consequence of this, Harris was considered “reclusive,” despite evidence to the contrary provided by his students.

  • Matthews, Peter. 1992. Zellig Harris. Language 75.1: 112–119.

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    Matthews’s reminiscences are complemented by linguistic examples that help explain the approach that Harris took to the material. By providing such examples, this essay helps the reader situate Harris’s work in regards to early inspirations, notably Leonard Bloomfield.

  • Nevin, Bruce. 1992. Zellig S. Harris: An appreciation. California Linguistic Notes 23.2 (Spring–Summer): 60–64.

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    A slight revision of a post published in Linguist List 3.445 (30 May 1992). Nevin’s obituary discusses the consistency of Harris’s work over the half-century or so when he was making his contributions to areas of linguistics. He also makes clear that the apparent “messiness” of language reflects two systems at work: a system of word dependencies and a system of reductions that changes word shapes. Notable as well is Nevin’s insistence on the continued pertinence of Harris’s work, and the belief that Harris exerted a far more considerable influence upon the field and, moreover, upon Chomsky’s approach than generally maintained.

  • Nevin, Bruce E., ed. 2002. The legacy of Zellig Harris: Language and information into the 21st century. Vol. 1, Philosophy of science, syntax, and semantics. Current Issues in Linguistic Theory 228. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

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    This anthology includes contributions from an international array of scholars who describe the importance of Harris’s methodology for philosophy of science and diverse developments in syntax and semantics, phonology, the application of operator grammar to literary analysis of Sapir’s Takelma texts, and the benefits of string analysis for language pedagogy.

  • Nevin, Bruce E., and Stephen B. Johnson, eds. 2002. The legacy of Zellig Harris: Language and information into the 21st century. Vol. 2, Mathematics and computability of language. Current Issues in Linguistic Theory 229. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

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    Zellig Harris had a profound influence in formal systems and applied mathematics, in demonstrations of the computability of language, and in informatics. Volume 2 begins with a commentary on Harris’s interest in mathematics, and contributions describe the history of work on the computability of language, Harris’s distributional methods, the field of automatic acquisition of information categories, and Harris-inspired work on text generation.

  • Watt, W. C. 2005. “Zellig Sabbatai Harris.”In Biographical Memoirs. Vol. 87. Edited by National Academy of Science, 198–219. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

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    Watt’s biographical memoir offers an overview of Harris’s life, with insights into his teaching, his personality, and the approach he brought to the different disciplines to which he contributed.

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