Zel­lig Har­ris: From Amer­i­can Lin­guis­tics to Social­ist Zionism

Robert F. Barsky
  • Review
By – August 24, 2011
Although Noam Chomsky’s wide-rang­ing work in lin­guis­tics and pol­i­tics is well­known, the work of his doc­tor­al advi­sor and men­tor, Zel­lig Har­ris, is rec­og­nized today only by a small cir­cle of lin­guists and oth­ers inter­est­ed in mid-20th cen­tu­ry Jew­ish intel­lec­tu­al life. Barsky, Chomsky’s biog­ra­ph­er (Noam Chom­sky: A Life of Dis­sent, 1997), attempts to rem­e­dy this sit­u­a­tion with this work­man­like crit­i­cal biog­ra­phy.

Dur­ing an inter­view fif­teen years ago, Chom­sky sug­gest­ed to Barsky that he turn his atten­tion to Har­ris if he want­ed to learn more about Chomsky’s own back­ground and intel­lec­tu­al for­ma­tion. Barsky traces Harris’s life from his birth in Ukraine in 1909, his emi­gra­tion to the Unit­ed States in 1913, his devel­op­ment as a Jew­ish intel­lec­tu­al in Amer­i­ca to his death in his sleep after a full day’s work in 1992. As Barsky points out, Har­ris thought of him­self less as a lin­guist than as a method­ol­o­gist” who stud­ied uni­ver­sal human val­ues with rig­or, impar­tial­i­ty, and ratio­nal­i­ty.

As a col­lege stu­dent, Har­ris became deeply involved with Avukah, a Zion­ist stu­dent orga­ni­za­tion made up of intel­lec­tu­als — includ­ing Nathan Glaz­er and Sey­mour Mel­man — and social­ist Zion­ists debat­ing and work­ing to expand the idea of Zion­ism. Har­ris con­tributed to these debates by urg­ing Zion­ists to con­sid­er a social­ist Pales­tine that would serve as a safe haven not only for per­se­cut­ed Jews but also for dis­en­fran­chised Arabs.

His ear­li­est pub­lished book (Devel­op­ment of Canaan­ite Dialec­tics) grew out of Harris’s deep inter­est in the lan­guage and lin­guis­tic struc­tures of Semit­ic lan­guages; his ground­break­ing study, Meth­ods in Struc­tur­al Lin­guis­tics (1951), attempt­ed to describe lan­guages con­sis­tent­ly and with­out pre­sup­po­si­tions. Although Barsky’s study often gets mired in jar­gon and rep­e­ti­tion, his oth­er­wise admirable por­trait recov­ers the life and work of this impor­tant fig­ure in Amer­i­can intel­lec­tu­al life.
Hen­ry L. Car­ri­g­an, Jr. writes about books for Pub­lish­ers Week­ly, Library Jour­nal, Book­Page, and Fore­Word. He has writ­ten for numer­ous news­pa­pers includ­ing the Atlanta Jour­nal-Con­sti­tu­tion, The Char­lotte Observ­er, The Cleve­land Plain Deal­er, The Orlan­do Sen­tinel, The Chris­t­ian Sci­ence Mon­i­tor, and The Wash­ing­ton Post Book World.

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