October 27, 1909–May 22, 1992
BY W. C. WATT
ZELLIG S. HARRIS DIED ON May 22, 1992, midway through his eighty-second year. (The delay in memorializing him in these pages is owing to happenstance.) He was one of the half-dozen linguists, since the beginning of the serious study of language a little after 1800, whom anyone conversant with the field would label a genius. He was the first (in 1947) to adumbrate the notion that linguistics could accept the responsibility of synthesizing or “generating” the sentences of a given language (say, English), as in an algorithm or computer program, from some explicit set of rules—and in so doing he exercised a deep and abiding influence on his best-known student, Noam Chomsky; on his many other students; and on all future researchers who yearn to understand language, surely our most distinctively human attribute. Indeed, it is impossible to imagine present-day linguistics, in either its aims or accomplishments, without taking his pioneering work into account, even though the field, as is ideally true of any science, in which progress is attained by later generations’ standing on the shoulders of earlier giants (as often as not after first stepping on their toes), has in part moved beyond his particular vision.
Harris spent his entire scholarly life, until his retirement in 1979, at the University of Pennsylvania. He earned all of