A Remembrance of Morris Halle

Jay Keyser at MIT Press:

Morris_HalleWhen the history of modern theoretical linguistics is written, Morris Halle will be one of its chapter headings. Together with Noam Chomsky, his influence was seminal in turning linguistics from a descriptive discipline in which taxonomy counted for much and explanation for very little into the first explicit theory of the defining feature of homo sapiens, the ability to formulate and express an infinite number of thoughts. In this respect, the revolution wrought by Morris Halle and his colleague, Noam Chomsky, was akin to the Galilean revolution of the 17th century. Both led to profound changes in the way scientists thought about their domains.

I first experienced this revolution when I was a young graduate student at Yale University. Morris, a member of the foreign language section at MIT, was giving a talk at an American Mathematical Society meeting in New York City. The year was 1959. Morris was 36 years old. His talk was on Verner's Law. The effect of that talk on me was electric. I had come from two years of very traditional philological study at Oxford University where I concentrated in Old and Middle English. I had one year of graduate study at Yale under the tutelage of scholars like Bernard Bloch. And here in New York I was listening to an approach to the study of diachronic linguistics that was as radical in its way as the Galilean program was to the neo-scholastics who preceded him. If Morris was right, then everything I had been taught was not just wrong, it was meaningless.

More here.