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.

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Several of these surfaced unexpectedly in dealing with his Nachlass, the remaining papers and handwritten notes which we found neatly stacked in his apartment bookshelves. My being the family member equipped with at least an amateur understanding of his work required me to figure out what to do with them. A significant fraction, as expected, turned out to be technical papers which had been sent to him, much as they had been for the last six decades, with the expectation of a prompt, thorough, informed and lucid response.

My initial reaction was sadness but also alarm: Morris had not kept up with his emails over the last year or more, so I was concerned that what Morris had jotted in the margins hadn’t been conveyed to its intended recipients.

Tending to this seemed important, not just because getting things right mattered profoundly to Morris and to those whose work he was commenting on. More significantly, the underlinings, exclamation points, and other marginalia provide the key to why Morris was valued by so many. His correspondence and his almost religious devotion to maintaining it, the assurance which others could have that he would respond to any idea they might propound or any other need or concern of theirs, had a lot to do with the hundreds of homages which have poured in recent days. To honor Morris’s memory seemed to require that every comment reach those to whom it was directed.

Fortunately, I was reassured when, in going through the pile, I discovered some writings of my own which he had received and subjected to his usual close reading resulting in a few appropriately placed double question marks. He had, as it turned out, conveyed these to me. So on this basis, it was reasonable to assume that most of his intended responses had been transcribed into emails or delivered in some fashion.

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Also included with Morris’s papers were drafts from the project which would have been, had he completed it, his final publication: a monograph dealing with the morphology of Russian, Latin and German verbs. His papers attest to his having worked on the manuscript nearly every day, though it became apparent that, due to the effects of Alzheimers (“savage” being the well chosen adjective of family friend Ellen Cantarow), he was unable to progress, deriving and re-deriving what were more or less identical analyses of the same facts with each new version.

Again fortunately, it appears that the most significant of these redraftings would be saved as new versions on his laptop. The final, most recent version is conspicuously unfinished but, from what I can tell, an important document. Among those who agree is Noam, who initiated a series of informal meetings with Bob Berwick, Jay and Sylvain for Morris to present this work. Morris by this time was withdrawing from active participation in the field and, partly due to his increasing deafness, found conversational exchanges including more than one or two parties somewhat disorienting. He was, however, clearly very much pleased to be among his old friends, not arguing as he would have, but contenting himself with offering a few aphoristic comments and short responses to questions which we directed at him. Based on these meetings, and the encouragement they offered, I tried to get enough of handle on what he was doing to help him create a final version. Unfortunately, I wasn’t sufficiently prepared to do so.

What I can say about the manuscript is that it is classic Morris in that he states the problem-based on a familiar set of facts-Latin and German verb paradigms many of us learned in high school-with utmost clarity. And so are the solutions he proposes, though that’s not to say that they are not intricate and maybe even slightly arcane. For Latin verbs Morris makes use of the gambit taken in his paper on the Russian “yer” of positing an underlying vowel one which never appears in surface forms but is nonetheless required to account for them. I am aware that such analyses tend to be shunned in current phonological theory and that probably has something to do with why there was, from what I can tell, relatively little interest in Morris’s attempts to grapple with these problems. Not being up to speed on these matters, I can only reiterate what was Morris’s reflexive response-and implicit challenge: “OK, so maybe you don’t like my story, but what’s your story?” I (and I imagine you) can hear him saying. I’m sure there are those who have one, and, given the stratospheric level of scholarly competence among his former students and remaining colleagues, perhaps they will take the opportunity to download the file and, for nostalgia’s sake if nothing else, “argue with Morris”.

LatConjF

The same goes for the other main focus of the paper, German auxilliaries, which, as Morris observes, can be seen as reverse affix hopping-the mirror image of the English forms which were among of the parade examples of the “standard theory”. Here I’m aware that the story Morris tells is not consistent with current versions of syntactic theory which assume that tense and aspect are lexically “base generated.” Morris treats them as resulting from movement operations of the sort which he taught in his baby syntax class and which he assumes remain operative in some form. Again, Morris’s question “what’s your story” seems particularly cogent. And the answer, whatever form it takes would appear to necessarily tell us something about the small mutation which distinguishes two closely linguistic species-clear evidence for what has turned out (understandably) to be an elusive aspect of what we know must underlie our ability to learn a human language, namely, dare I say it, the linguistic parameter.

Whether Morris’s monograph will turn out to be directly relevant, on the periphery or a diversion remains to be seen. Of course, that goes for his work as a whole. For the moment, a perusal of academic publications suggests that, while they may recognize Morris’s name, few researchers in language find his work directly relevant. A small but significant minority, however, has incorporated some of its core insights. Those I’m most familiar with are David Poeppel, whose resuscitation of Morris and Ken Stevens’ analysis and resynthesis paradigm forms part of the conceptual foundation for his research program on cochlear rhythms, one which also may provide the neurological basis for Morris’s work in metrical phonology (a subect of many arguments between us over two decades, I should say). Another is Charles Yang’s recent book which vindicates Morris’s account of English irregular verbs. While widely criticized, including most publicly by Steven Pinker in his Words and Rules, Yang shows  that Morris’s semi-productive rule system is not only consistent with but the sort of account that the statistical evidence of language acquisition requires us to adopt. That doesn’t mean, of course, that the rules for verb formation are exactly as Morris formulated them. But it’s beginning to look like Morris may have the last word in that the kind of careful attention to rule governed derivations which Morris was concerned with will eventually direct research into the ultimate neurological basis of linguistic capacities. That’s assuming that Randy Gallistel is correct in suggesting that that will be the case once the field reaches maturity-a dissident view at present to be sure, but I’d put money on it being the right one-as dissident views often are.

***

Bringing up Morris’s unfinished academic business requires an apology to the non-linguists who are probably only vaguely aware of the various controversies in which Morris was involved as well as his somewhat marginal status in the field towards the end of his career. What they will have experienced is the reverse side of Morris’s gradual withdrawl from active participation in scholarship. This is something I myself began to notice it when, in attempting to work on his uncompleted manuscript, I asked him for help figuring out what many regard as one of most significant achievements, his work on distributed morphology in collaboration with Marantz. We took out the article, and, when confronted with the Georgian paradigm which initiates his discussion he simply could no longer explain how the forms were accounted for. And so we put it aside. We were in Maine and Morris, as I recall, went out to help his grandson on one of his first bicycle rides leaving me one more project from Morris’s legacy to eventually come to terms with.

The gradual decline of Morris’s legendary command of facts and logical acuity corresponded with an equally profound shift in his own identity which gradually revealed itself to us. Increasingly relegated to the periphery was a certain kind of gruffness which Noam commented on at their first meeting in 1951,  Carol having anticipated it in her description of him the previous day as “a severe European”. (1) Yes, there was a severity to Morris and he was famously demanding of his students: “Work more, sleep less”, was one of the remarks associated with the old, stern Morris albeit always inflected with a twinkle in his eye. On occasion, as children, we received our own en famille variant of this, though I can’t say the twinkle was always that apparent to us.

But as Morris moved into old age, these rough edges were replaced by something very different, a solicitousness and gentle serenity which recalled most the borderline saints from late Tolstoy-and which Tolstoy himself aspired to become. Morris was always capable of simple acts of kindness but these became increasingly pronounced especially in the years after Roz died, particularly evident with his grandchildren whose birthdays he always remembered and celebrated with well chosen gifts which showed how present they were in his thoughts.

Another shift involved Morris’s increasing concern with recovering and coming to terms with his background as one of the few surviving members of his family of Latvian jews. I’ve written elsewhere of Morris having recognized, as few of his contemporaries did, the corrosive effects of “never again” Judaism, and of his resistance to getting pulled into the reactionary spiral which was the inevitable trajectory of those defining themselves by the slogan. That said, in his later years, he would frequently remark on the miracle of his family’s escape for Riga and, while he never mentioned it when we were growing up, the long memories of cousins, and especially his favorite uncle Sasha, seemed to surface much more in his consciousness and in conversations with him.

Discussions with Morris’s were not only possible but almost always a pleasure to the very end. But what largely vanished were arguments of the sort which were once routine. When the possibility emerged from discussions having become too heated, even if they did not involve him, he would gently request that we change the subject. One of the things which seemed to please him most towards the end of his life was his family existing in something approximating harmony with our having more or less reconciled ourselves to our own and our siblings idiosyncracies, failures and yes, notable successes. And while like any family, we have our share of tensions, Morris’s perception was close enough to the truth so we didn’t have to strain to maintain a “one big happy family” fiction for his benefit. Family holidays celebrations were just that-especially for Morris, though in recent years he would tire easily and wouldn’t last into the late evening completing 1000 piece jigsaw puzzles as we would during the years in Newton where various MIT graduate students and old friends of Morris and Roz were regulars.

***

Morris’s last weeks and months were, needless to say, not easy for any of us. But even these brought a surprise in the form of another latent personality trait which only occasionally surfaced in our previous experience with him, and that is what was, at the core of his identity, an inextinguishable cheerfulness. This became apparent after Morris’s requirement of nursing care put the family in touch with a sector of the economy which most of us know exists, but whose existence we often prefer not to fully recognize, namely those providing services to those in declining health, particularly in the hospice stage. As these were necessary to provide to him, Morris, a very private person, initially found the requirement of their presence somewhat difficult. But he quickly reconciled himself to them, and became a favorite of theirs according to them, always making it as easy as possible for them to tend to him and doing his best to get to know them personally. On some level, I’m sure he recognized the difficulty of their job, the near certainty that they were not adequately compensated (as so few in the caring professions are) and was deeply appreciative as we all were for their professionalism and concern which went beyond what professionalism required.

Morris’s last days were spent surrounded by family and friends until his final hours. His passing was devastating but not unexpected. The days since have been harder than many of us expected though having heard from many of you-old and new friends, real and virtual, has offered as much peace of mind as is possible to achieve under the circumstances.

I am very grateful to all of you and will, as promised above, get back to you personally as soon as possible.

(1)  Initial draft mistakenly attribute the date of this encounter to 1955.  Thanks to Noam for the correction.  The complete anecdote is related by him as follows: “It was actually a few months after we arrived, probably September 1951.  Carol had a recommendation from a Professor of hers at Penn, a French phonetician, to Bill Locke, chair of Modern Languages.  We went to MIT, I sat downstairs while she went up to the third floor department office for her appointment – trembling.  A little while later she came downstairs – also trembling, though she had gotten an assistantship in RLE, in the group Morris was in – Walter Rosenblith’s I think.  I asked her how it went and she said that Locke was polite and sent her to talk to a faculty member, a severe European gentleman. Turned out it was Morris.  We all met shortly after and he told us that it was his first interview with a prospective appointment, and he was just as nervous as she was.”

note 4/10/18: will update this with additional links in the next few days.  I would, of course, welcome those taking the time to contribute their own recollections of Morris in the comments.

Obituaries for Morris.

MIT News, Boston Globe, Language Log, Le monde (by Morris’s former student François Dell), Faculty of Language, 
by Morris and Noam’s former office manager Bev Stohl, Phonolist

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2 thoughts on “Morris Halle (1923-2018)”

  1. Hi John. Thanks so much for your very thoughtful post. Your comments about the nursing care brought back some other memories about Morris. I’m sure you know all this, but I’ll repeat them here because of how much they struck me at the time. After he was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes (which he called by its older term, senile diabetes) Morris was advised to make several lifestyle changes (more exercise, no alcohol, etc.). And he was entirely rational about those changes, and simply did them, no complaining (at least not that I ever heard). I realized then that I probably wouldn’t have that kind of will or common sense, yet another remarkable thing about Morris.

    1. Thanks Bill. Yes, perhaps Morris’s most conspicuous quality was a) his ability to determine the right thing to do and b) doing it. Both are much easier said than done-of course. He was unusual in neither being a problem for him.

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