Who Was Morris Halle?

On April 1st, 2022, MIT dedicated a wing of their Stata Center to Noam Chomsky and Morris Halle, celebrating the achievements of the two great linguists and the ongoing incredible linguistic study being conducted at the university. In my time studying linguistics, I have heard of Noam Chomsky many times, frequently seeing him referred to as the father of modern linguistics and the creator of the famously controversial universal grammar theory. Thus, when I heard the wing was being shared with another linguist, clearly of equal importance, I was shocked that I had never heard of him before, and I knew I had to learn more.

Morris Halle, a Latvian-born Jewish American linguist, worked side by side with Chomsky as the pair laid the foundations for the modern field of linguistics. While Chomsky chose to focus on syntax, Halle specialized in phonology, writing crucial texts such as On Accent and Juncture in English, a paper co-authored by the two linguists detailing a better way to demonstrate stress in phonetic transcriptions of the English language. The pair also wrote The Sound Pattern of English, which largely contributed to the generative grammar theory.

Halle made his mark in a number of professional organizations and universities, studying at the University of Chicago, Columbia, and Harvard, founding and teaching at MIT’s linguistics department, and eventually becoming the president of the Linguistic Society of America in 1974. Halle also was a Guggenheim Fellow in 1960, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. He was fluent in six languages.

Halle’s work was clearly extremely important to advancement in the field of linguistics, not only through his groundbreaking research but also through the many valuable lessons that he imparted to his students. His pupils’ descriptions of him make one thing very clear: he truly cared about them and valued their input, asking them to argue with him instead of just accepting his feedback. He took their work and knowledge just as seriously as he did his own.

Morris Halle sadly passed away on April 2nd, 2018, at the age of 94. He died nearby, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was an inspirational and prominent figure in the linguistics community, and I’m sure his legacy will live on for many years to come.

One of Halle’s students has made a post in his memory here. I encourage you to read it.

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