Morris Halle R.I.P.

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Morris Halle passed away early this morning: born 7/23/1923, died 4/2/2018.

The abstract from "Morris Halle: An Appreciation", Annual Review of Linguistics 2015, describes his influence on the field:

Morris Halle has been one of the most influential figures in modern linguistics. This is partly due to his scientific contributions in many areas: insights into the sound patterns of English and Russian, ideas about the nature of metered verse, ways of thinking about phonological features and rules, and models for argumentation about phonological description and phonological theory. But he has had an equally profound influence through his role as a teacher and mentor, and this personal influence has not been limited to students who follow closely in his intellectual and methodological footsteps. It has been just as strong—or stronger—among researchers who disagree with his specific ideas and even his general approach, or who work in entirely different subfields. This appreciation is a synthesis of reflections from colleagues and former students whom he has formed, informed, and inspired.

If you don't have an institutional or individual subscription, a .pdf version of that article is here.

I was one of his students, and I've been thinking about what he taught me.

Morris believed in the virtuous interaction of empirical coverage, descriptive insight, and theoretical elegance. He often said that the best discovery procedure is a theory, even a wrong one, because testing a theory's predictions leads you into areas of fact that you never would have explored otherwise. And for Morris, the best theories were right in unexpected ways, providing simple explanations for complex and apparently diverse patterns of data. He also insisted that successful new ideas should be justified by their role in providing broader and deeper empirical coverage of a significant piece of a particular language, not merely by reference  to isolated fragments of many descriptions known only through secondary or tertiary sources.

But his most important influence, on me and many others, was his model of intellectual conversation as dialectical reasoning. Here's Diane Archangeli in the Annual Review of Linguistics "Appreciation":

I first met Morris when I was getting my MA at UT Austin, and he came down for a conference that John McCarthy had organized. When I was giving my talk, Morris jumped up on stage with me and debated my analysis with me. It took me a few moments to get over the shock and awe so I could stutter out something, anything in response. The realization that Morris Halle took my work seriously was a turning point for me.

My second strong memory is from my early days as a student at MIT, when I was getting comments back from him on some paper I'd done. I dutifully took notes on what he said so I could go home and think about it, but he would have none of that. “Argue with me! Argue with me!” is something I imagine every one of us heard from him.

And there are the memories of going in to Morris's office week after week to talk about some new fragment of my research. Each week he had read it and made notes in the margins and then picked out a key point to challenge me on, arguing strongly for A where I had tried to make the case for not-A. The next week, I would come back set up to argue for A and Morris would then take the not-A position…oh, right…argue with me!

One of my most treasured compliments was when a graduate student of mine at [University of Arizona] who, after meeting Morris, observed that I “channel Morris” in my teaching. It is special to me to be able to stop and think about what an influence he had on who I am and how glad I am that my life unfolded in a way that I could benefit from him. I am a better teacher and a better linguist for his influence.

And here's a similar memory from Dick Oehrle:

The conversation took place in Morris's office in the summer after my first year at MIT, while I was investigating patterns of English word stress in preparation for writing a phonology qualifying paper. I had a few tentative observations, rearranging in some minor way some of the details of the monumental edifice of English stress that Morris had constructed in The Sound Pattern of English (with Noam Chomsky) and English Stress: Its Form, Its Growth, and Its Role in Verse (with Samuel Jay Keyser). Morris looked at me and said, “You know as much about this as I do. Argue with me.” Never was a false sentence so liberating. Thank you, Morris—teacher, mentor, friend.

In 2013 The New Yorker published "Happy Birthday, Morris Halle" by Gary Marcus, in honor of Morris's 90th birthday. John Goldsmith and Haj Ross interviewed Morris in that same year for the series Lives in Linguistics.

Update — Peter Dizikes, "Institute Professor Emeritus Morris Halle, innovative and influential linguist, dies at 94", MIT News Office 4/3/2018.



  1. Eric Bakovic said,

    April 2, 2018 @ 10:27 am

    I'm so sorry to hear this. One of my fondest personal-and-professional memories is introducing Morris to my parents on the steps of Widener Library, 20 years ago. It was a chance encounter, and I didn't quite know what to say, so I said something like "Mom, Dad, this is Morris Halle. He's the reason I get to do what I do." Somewhat contrived, but I still think it's true.

  2. Kyle Gorman said,

    April 2, 2018 @ 10:43 am

    I posted a short memory about meeting Morris here:

  3. Charles Yang said,

    April 2, 2018 @ 10:53 am

    I learned so much from Morris and wish I had learned more. Two things he said to me most often: “Yang, you are ignorant”, and “You’ve gotta give them a zinger in the end.” I miss him terribly.

  4. Jennifer Cole said,

    April 2, 2018 @ 1:33 pm

    Morris passed along many pearls of wisdom that I recall often and pass along to my students. One is that a successful career in linguistics (and really, in any field) requires more than pointing out what's wrong with other people's theories. The second is to be wary of an analysis in any framework that does not lead you to deeper insights into the properties of the underlying system, It's not enough for an analysis to work; it should also be interesting! It's been years since I last spoke with Morris, but his words still ring in my ears–literally! I can still hear the chuckle he deployed while waiting for me to supply my side of the argument at hand.

  5. Barbara Partee said,

    April 2, 2018 @ 4:44 pm

    While Noam Chomsky was always on a pedestal for me as an aspiring syntax student, and he and Ed Klima were my principal advisors in matters syntactic, my real mentor was always Morris Halle. I could go to him for advice about anything, and he wasn't reluctant to give me advice unasked when he thought I needed it. He was the one who patiently guided me through the difficult process of writing my first publication, a review of Shaumjan and Soboleva's book Applikativnaja porozhdajushchaja model' i ischislenie transformatsij v russkom jazyke. He was the one I went to when I was totally cowed and befuddled after having a weird conversation with Cal Watkins when I was interviewing for a job at Harvard — it started abruptly with "How much do you care about money?", followed, when I could only stutter and mumble, by "Well, then, how much do you care about rank?". When I confessed that I didn't understand what this was about, he explained gruffly that it was about whether I could have 6 years or only 4 until the up-or-out tenure decision. I have no idea what I said in response — I was just intensely uncomfortable and I think more or less speechless. I felt very small. I went back and told Halle about it, and about my befuddlement. And he said "They're just trying to get you cheap" (by offering me a lectureship instead of an assistant professorship.) "You call him up and tell him you're interested in Assistant Professor or nothing." Well, the next day, it took all my strength to make that phone call, and I said something like "Well, I've thought about it, and I guess I'd rather take my chances with an Assistant Professorship." (No way was I capable of talking like Morris.) And he instantly shot back, "Who's been talking to you?". I meekly replied "Morris Halle", and I think that was the end of the conversation. It was certainly the end of my considering Harvard as a place where I would want to be, despite the attractions of Susumu Kuno's machine translation lab. I was grateful to Morris for helping me navigate that episode and a great many others, for helping me learn to stand on my own two feet, and for teaching me so much of what I learned about how to be a linguist and a teacher and mentor. As someone remarked on my Facebook page, among the graduate students at MIT Chomsky was respected, and Morris was loved.

  6. Miriam Lemle said,

    April 2, 2018 @ 4:59 pm

    Professor Morris Halle showed me the right way to look at the phonology of Brazilian Portuguese. He did it carefully and elegantly. His classes were very clear and he seemed to be amusing himself while teaching. A charming person. His passag in this world has certainly improved it. His work is an enduring contribution. I am thankful for having been able to be one of his thousands oif students,

  7. Carol Tenny said,

    April 2, 2018 @ 9:03 pm

    I have so many powerful memories of Morris Halle from my days as a student at MIT. One of his best exclamations I remember is, "If you believe what we tell you here it's your own &* fault!" I learned and gained so much from him.

  8. Annie Rialland said,

    April 3, 2018 @ 1:15 pm

    Morrris Halle spent one year in Paris (1984-1985) and I had the privilege to welcome him. I did not know him personnally before he came and, for me, he was on a piedestal. Quickly, we began to argue, to dispute about metathesis in Kasem. He was in favor of metathesis in Kasem and I had arguments against it and I had a new analysis. Morris enjoyed crossing swords. Morris taught during one year in Paris and made it a point of honor to teach in French. The room was full, even if his class was scheduled at the end of the day of Fridays.
    We are regretting a great phonologist and a role model in many respects.

  9. David Pesetsky said,

    April 3, 2018 @ 4:13 pm

    obituary article from MIT:

  10. Luigi Burzio said,

    April 3, 2018 @ 4:47 pm

    As a mentor, Morris had the surface firmness of a drill sergeant, and yet the deep tenderness of a father. Without him, moderns Linguistics could not be what it is, and many lives and careers would have been very different. We loved you, Morris.

  11. David Lightfoot said,

    April 5, 2018 @ 5:21 pm

    my most intense experience of Morris was one evening when Joseph and Zeina Aoun invited us for dinner at their apartment in Paris during the 1982 GLOW. I had just been asked to start a new linguistics department at Maryland and Morris had advice for me, strong and wrong: Don't even try; it'll never work, not at a big, unwieldy state university. We argued about how things might be done successfully but he was adamant that places like the University of Maryland would set unattainable standards to be met and it was a losing proposition.
    We met again, some 25 years later, when Joseph was assuming the presidency of Northeastern U. He remembered in detail the arguments that each of us had given in Paris, recognized what had happened at Maryland … and was thoroughly graceful and generous in defeat.

  12. Peter Schwenn said,

    April 6, 2018 @ 2:54 am

    I learned a little phonology in my mom. While in school, I discovered what I didn't know. Bruce Finlayson, a friend, taught me what of the superficial to look into. The rest is from
    Bdlg. 20. From Morris, Jerry Fodor, Noam, Thomas Bever and Paul Kiparsky: outlook, attitude, BS recognition, insight, insult, invention, argument; the nature of Science; the value of some philosophy. "Indebted" ain't in it.

    Morris Halle's passing is overwhelming. But when the sadness wanes, a miracle is permitted: he will be as alive as ever: guiding, inspiring, suggesting. Available for instructive conversation.


    aside: Paul Kiparsky doesn't have the insult gene, Noam isn't aware of his talent, Jerry had an entire chromosome devoted to it, but Morris was the master – as needed, with the force needed.

  13. Gary Milsark said,

    April 6, 2018 @ 10:06 pm

    Here's a rather silly but fond memory. In my first semester as a student, Morris had trouble remembering my name and usually called me Larry. One day we encountered each other walking in opposite directions in the 20C corridor. As we approached each other, he growled something like "How's it going, Larry?" I responded "Fine, Horace, how's with you?" He walked about two more paces, stopped dead, turned around, let out one of his roaring belly laughs, and never made the mistake again.

  14. Morris Halle (1923-2018) - Outrages and Interludes said,

    April 10, 2018 @ 8:18 pm

    […] News, Boston Globe, Language Log, Le monde (by Morris's former student François Dell), Faculty of Language,  by Morris and […]

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