Zellig Sabbettai Harris
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ZELLIG SABBETTAI HARRIS Zellig Harris died in his sleep on May 22, 1992. He served as president of the Linguistic Society of America in 1955, and was one of the half dozen or so American linguists whose work has had the greatest influence both in his own country and abroad. This obituary fills a gap that should have been filled much earlier, and it is an honor to have been invited to write it. Harris was born on October 23, 1909, in what was to become the Soviet Union, but he was brought to Philadelphia when he was four. His entire academic career lay at the University of Pennsylvania, as student and professor, until he formally retired in 1979. For years, however, he commuted to Israel, where his wife Bruria Kaufman, a theoretical physicist and former assistant of Einstein, was a professor at the Weizmann Institute. I wish that I could refer to other memorials which would say something of the man himself. I met him once, and found him courteous and charming. Instant tributes in the Linguist list, by Bruce Nevin and Michael Kac, include some relevant anecdotes.1 But it would be impertinent for an obituarist so little connected with him to attempt to say more. A list of Harris's academic writings has been published by Konrad Koerner (1993); to complete it we should add, in particular, a single book on politics, published well after his death (Harris 1997). He was in the beginning a Semitist, and, as a later reviewer was to recall perhaps with some nostalgia, a good Semitist (Cantineau 1954:4). His first book (and doctoral thesis) was a grammar and glossary of Phoenician (1936), by all accounts excellent and still cited for points of detail. Before that he had already contributed much to the analysis of the then new material in Ugaritic. His next book (1939) was a study of the early history of the Canaanite branch of West Semitic, to which the Phoenician dialects, with Hebrew, Moabite, etc., belong. This too is an exemplary philological study, of a kind that he would not publish again. Harris was then thirty, and there seems little doubt that, had he continued in the Semitic field, he would have been a leader in it. But by 1940 his attention had already turned to general linguistics, and in a critical review of Gray's Foundations of Language (1940) he set out many of the ideas that from then on were to guide his scholarly life. With other linguists of that period, he stresses the importance of synchronic structure and 'the structural method'. He talks of the need to 'organize data by their place in the structure' (218), and argues that this structure 'can be described only in terms of the formal, not semantic, differences of its units and their relations' (223). 'Particularly undesirable are psychological explanations ' (225). 'The work of linguistics is reducible, in the last analysis, to establishing correlations' (228). In a review of Trubetzkoy's Grundzüge der Phonologie (1941), naturally more favorable, he objects nevertheless to the notion that the 'language structure ' (translating Sprachgebilde) can be studied independently of the 'speech act' (Sprechakt); the former is 'merely the scientific arrangement' of the latter (345). He pleads again for the selection of distributional, this time in preference to phonetic, criteria. From then on, the development of his thought may helpfully be divided into three, in part overlapping, phases. The first begins in 1942 and may be seen to end in 1955, with articles on the morpheme. This is the period, above all, of Methods in Structural 1 May 29 and May 31, 1992; also, in print, Nevin 1992. I am very grateful to Alan S. Kaye and Anna Morpurgo Davies for sending me copies; also to her and to Henry M. Hoenigswald for help generally with this obituary. 112 ZELLIG SABBETTAI HARRIS1 13 Linguistics (1951a), which should be read with, in particular, his article 'Distributional structure' (1954a), put first in the most accessible collection of Harris's papers (1981). The central aim throughout this phase was to establish the basic units of a language on the evidence of distributional patterns. Phonemes are identified to account...