Category Archives: linguistics

Morris Halle: The Soviet Debate on Literature (1917-1925), University of Chicago MA dissertation, 1948

Following his discharge from the Army,  my father Morris Halle enrolled as a Master’s student at the University of Chicago for the winter term of 1945.  Although Morris was by that time fluent in seven languages, his acquaintance with linguistics, the field which would become his primary academic focus would not be made at Chicago.

This was due to the marginal status of linguistics at UC.  Legendary President Robert Maynard Hutchins reportedly took a dim view of the field, making little attempt to hold on to Leonard Bloomfield and Edward Sapir, important linguists who would decamp to Yale well before Morris arrived.  The linguistics classes available to Morris were taught by the Sanskrit scholar George V. Bobrinskoy and these he told me he found relatively uninteresting. It was not until the summer visit to the University of the Princeton Professor Giuliano Bonfante that Morris’s interest in the field would be fully awakened.  In particular, it was Bonfante who would introduce Morris to the work of Roman Jakobson with whom Morris would go on to study.  By then,  Morris had apparently committed to receiving his degree in Russian Literature, completing his Master’s dissertation prior to his departure for Columbia in the fall of 1948.


The dissertation below will come as a surprise to those who remember Morris. None of his surviving friends I have spoken to had heard of it, and while his interest in Russian literature was apparent to all who knew him, none of us were aware of any writing he had done on it.  For seven decades, it inhabited the most distant point in his home office, the extreme far right of the top shelf just under the ceiling .  It is there where I came upon it following his death in April of 2018.

The discovery raised a minor mystery and some mild suspicions:  Morris’s career was never in any way impacted by his political leanings. He was generally regarded as relatively apolitical-particularly compared to his colleague and friend Chomsky.  Could this perception have been at least partly due to to efforts he made to obscure what had been an embrace of socialism and its core tenets typical of many of his generation?  The relatively even-handed treatment of Soviet Literature in the dissertation was not that of a fellow traveller, though it did indicate sympathy for the socialist project. This would have been unproblematic in the 40s.  But in the Red Scare decade that followed, as Ellen Schrecker has documented, even the mildest defenses of any aspect of Soviet life could attract unfavorable notice and worse.  It would not surprise me if Morris’s consignment of this to a location where it would not have been seen or asked about wasn’t entirely accidental.

Of course, the simplest explanation for its banishment is that  Morris regarded this as student work in a field he had moved on from.  But it’s highly competent student work, characteristically clear, logical, and even polished- not the slightest trace of Morris having picked up English as his sixth language only a few years before.  At the time, he was documenting events which were of considerable interest to him and to his circles, an interest which remains among those describing themselves as socialists. For this reason, it seemed appropriate to make this public, offering it not just to Morris’s remaining friends, family and former students but to those with an interest in the early Soviet period as it appeared to a perceptive and informed contemporary observer who would go on to make his mark in an unrelated field.

I would very much appreciate hearing any reactions to Morris’s text or corrections, amendments or additions to the story I have related above.


Download Morris’s thesis:

Morris UChicago Thesis


Fred Lerdahl’s Achievement

Introduction to Fred Lerdahl:
Tonal Space, Text Setting, and Musical Narrative

Schoff Memorial Lecture Series

Columbia University

November 26, 2018

As he mentioned in last week’s Schoff lecture, Fred’s magnum opus, the Generative Theory of Tonal Music (or GTTM) had its roots in Bernstein’s Harvard Norton Lectures of 1973 later published as The Unanswered Question. Bernstein was a celebrity, perhaps the last which classical music was able to produce, so these were major cultural and intellectual events. I attended along with Fred and his eventual collaborator on GTTM Ray Jackendoff and probably several thousand others.

I was 14 at the time and while I didn’t know Fred, I did know Ray who, as an MIT graduate student in my father’s department, assumed the status of something like a cousin, as many did, routinely joining us for meals and celebrating holidays with us. An accomplished clarinetist and active freelancer in and around Boston, Ray’s performances of Stravinsky Three Pieces for solo clarinet were revelatory for me as was his post-performance discussion of the perceptual ambiguities resulting from the shifting meters and how performers can choose to resolve these-or not.

Given that some of my initial exposure to sophisticated ideas about music came from a linguist, it makes sense that my initial understanding of linguistics would be channeled by Bernstein through music. Bernstein’s command of the field was significantly impoverished, as many, including Ray and my father, noted at the time.  But it did at least invoke some of the core vocabulary and, most importantly, managed to communicate something which is to this day not well understood: that long standing mysteries about the nature of language were finally being addressed or at least coherently formulated in the hallways of MIT building 20.

Continue reading Fred Lerdahl’s Achievement

Sylvain Bromberger 1924-2018

Sylvain Bromberger who died on Monday at age 94 was an MIT professor of philosophy whose work involved reconciling the various incarnations of generative grammar with work within the philosophical tradition, most notably semantics, epistemology and formal logic.  In this capacity. he worked closely with MIT linguists including my father Morris, though their acquaintance preceded Sylvain’s arrival at MIT by many years, both having been graduates of George Washington High School in the early 1940s.

Since most of my postings here involve politics, I’ll mention that while neither Morris nor Sylvain would be described as activists, they had strong political views. These applied in particular to another GWHS grad from the same time, namely, Henry Kissinger. Both were utterly appalled not only by Kissinger but by the possibility that such an individual could exist. “Six million Jews, and they had to miss him” was my father’s line, one which Sylvain heartily applauded.

It stands to reason that both Morris and Sylvain were reliable presences opposing Kissinger’s wars-those directly prosecuted by him and those he inspired-extending thoughout most of my adult life. Sylvain would participate in these as part of the Veterans for Peace brigade, often in uniform displaying his combat medals.

I mention this partly because both Morris and Sylvain would be generically classified as suburban liberals.  But if so, they were hardly the cartoon cut outs which revolutionary leftists routinely deride: their views on the fundamental immorality and stupidity of military aggression remained until their last conscious hours-it is safe to assume.  And they were liberals, definitively not neoliberals, having regarded the cuts to New Deal social welfare programs with concern and alarm.  Eventually, this would express itself as contempt for the New Democrat/Clintonite wing of the Democratic Party-maybe not soon enough for my taste, but they got there eventually.


As most of those reading this are probably aware, Sylvain and Morris were close friends, both secular Jewish emigres, temperamentally and culturally similar.  But there were some basic differences between them.

One was that Sylvain was good at math and Morris wasn’t. Or at least he claimed not to be though Morris did claim to be good at algebra, which was true, but not much more. Sylvain was good at pretty much any math I ever tried to do-a reliable source for help on calculus homework (I remember him explaining limits to me in a way that I wish I could remember) and even differential equations.

The other difference was that Morris was funny but he didn’t tell jokes. Sylvain did-and I’ll pass a couple along here because they give a good idea of who Sylvain was, but also because they’re funny and give a good idea of some of the attitudes prevalent in circles in which Morris and Sylvain moved.

Postulate: One is not a number.
Proof: When you step on one bug you don’t step on a number of bugs. Therefore, one is not a number.

The other is a bit edgier and I’ll leave the referent X undefined for the moment.

Postulate: The number of stupid X’s is infinite.
Proof: For every stupid X you give me, I can find an X that is stupider.
Therefore, the number of stupid X’s is infinite.

As I recall, X in the original was logicians, though it might have been philosophers. Sylvain could be quite withering about his own field. His views along these lines were consonant with MIT linguists many of whom took at face value Steven Weinberg’s notorious dig against philosophers “as having been primarily useful in defending real science from attacks from other philosophers.”    But Sylvain-and the linguists- were, of course, always ready to admit plenty of exceptions. The shared terrain of semantics, in recent years perhaps the most fertile area of linguistics is notable for researchers from both fields working on equal footing.  While I never discussed this with Sylvain, I would imagine he found this gratifying.

Another difference between Sylvain and my father is sad to relate: as Morris went into decline, Sylvain remained uncannily as I remembered him from decades ago almost to the very end. Seeing him was a real comfort for all of us, particularly in the final months of Morris’s life.

What did change over the years is that I began to actually be able to understand enough about some of the issues in the field to argue with him. It is at that point that I began to appreciate why Sylvain why was regarded as highly as he was at MIT and elsewhere.  He was reminiscent of Noam in that he didn’t care who you were-or who I was.  Ideas were evaluated at on their own terms, but also sympathetically, with an eye towards extracting the most value out of them by recognizing whatever it was in them that was novel, original or unfamiliar.

That said, Sylvain was somewhat skeptical of some of the core assumptions of generative linguistics. In particular, Sylvain seemed to take a philosopher’s view of language as a formal system designating relationships between entities, one which exists independently of the biological system in which it happens to be instantiated.

He seemed to be uncomfortable with the orthodox Chomskyan view of language as natural object, the study of it ultimately being an investigation into the properties of a human organ. Recent versions versions construe linguistics as the biolinguistics program-nothing more or less than a subfield of biology.  I recall him mildly scoffing at this suggestion, though as I remember, we didn’t pursue it.

What our discussion moved onto was our recognition that we were both less up to speed than we felt we should be with the nuts and bolts of current versions of syntactic theory. Sylvain had, for many years, maintained a solid command of them, so I regret that I didn’t follow through with arranging a blackboard session with him. Perhaps I might finally  have been able to get a handle on how tense affixes are assigned via the feature checking mechanism.

I can well imagine I would have been provided the same kind of lucid explanation which I got from him almost a half century ago.  No doubt others could supply something like it, but not very many.

Brains and mensches like Sylvain don’t grow on trees.


The World of my Father (part II)

A while back in trying to find a family movie, I decided on the sci-fi flick Arrival about a linguist saving the world. (Not bad, for those who don’t know it). In trying to figure out how to sell it to my kid I ended up sending him youtube promotional videos, about the only document I know of which has currency in his media landscape. Most were the usual PR hype, though there was one which, in addition to interviewing the stars, most notably Amy Adams, also has an interview with the linguist she played, an MIT PhD, now at McGill named Jessica Coon.

Now everyone knows that everyone aspires to hang out with movie stars. In fact, even my late father Morris did, and here’s a digression on that point. Some might be surprised to know that Morris was friends with Lacan. I was too when he came up in conversation. though I forgot how (maybe precipitated by Sokal and Bricmont’s book).

Continue reading The World of my Father (part II)

On Language, Evolution and Disability: Is the Smithsonian Ableist?

1) Based on what we now know about human language, the above panel displayed in the Smithsonian Institution’s exhibit on human evolution is almost certainly incorrect.

2) Specifically, the claim that language was “enabled” by a reconfiguration of the vocal tract misconstrues the locus of evolution of language. This occurred not in the throat, mouth, lips and tongue, the articulatory organs through which spoken language is characteristically realized, but in the brain.

Continue reading On Language, Evolution and Disability: Is the Smithsonian Ableist?

Morris Halle (1923-2018)

This attempt at memorializing my father, who passed away a week ago today, began as a temporary note of appreciation to those of you who have responded to the news with personal communications and remembrances of Morris.

I will, of course, respond to you personally-I say “of course” because now more than ever it seems necessary to do what Morris would have done, and we all know what that is: he would have sat down and composed a short, thoughtful, and eminently appropriate response-in perfect English (his fifth of seven languages in which he was fluent, it is easy to forget), entirely free from errors in punctuation or misspellings.

For the moment, I don’t seem to be able to do so, so my apologies for that. What I can manage are some recollections of Morris as they came up in dealing with the more or less routine matters which accompany the passing of a close relative.

Continue reading Morris Halle (1923-2018)