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Heidi Harley

Published onApr 19, 2019
Heidi Harley

Dear Noam,

Thank you for showing us how to investigate structures in the mind. Exploring and challenging and applying generative linguistic theory, besides being scientifically enlightening, has been among the greatest joys of my life. Here’s some moments I especially remember and thank you for:

Learning about the structure-determined distribution of reflexive anaphors and pronouns in Leslie Saxon’s undergraduate intro-to-syntax class. It was a real bolt of lightning, the first time I really understood that my own mind represented and used rules that I had no conscious inkling of but could discover through experimentation.

Being a student in your Thursday class at MIT in the early 1990s, coming to understand the framework for Minimalist investigation of language as it was being developed. I investigated whether nominative objects in Dat-Nom constructions in Icelandic showed the same behavior under object shift as normal accusative objects did (they do), and drew conclusions about the character of structural nominative case therefrom. It was fun.

From the same Thursday classes: understanding the remarkable fact that if we assume a bare phrase structure, i.e. restrict our phrase structure to the unadorned output of Merge, and then try to represent the unergative/unaccusative distinction in intransitive verbs, the theory requires the introduction of vP above VP. And, amazingly, that hypothesis, required by the structure of the theory, turns out to be correct, and one of the most fruitful ideas of the past couple of decades. Watching that discovery come together made me really feel committed to a Minimalist approach.

As I began work with the Hiaki language here in Arizona, looking at the distribution of NPs I felt, wow, I have never seen this language before and yet I know exactly what is going on here. The theory of locality as it applied to structural case-checking was so transparently applicable to the Hiaki system, there was simply no question that it was a near-perfect model of it; I could causativize an applicative and then passivize it and predict exactly what NP would appear where in what case form. There were and are plenty of things about Hiaki grammar that are deeply mysterious, but instantly recognizing the clockwork behind the distribution of case on NPs gave me a stable place to stand, and let me formulate and test hypotheses about other parts of the system with confidence. It was fantastic.

Thank you for all of that. And of course also thank you for your work laying bare the structure of our political and economic systems and their catastrophic consequences, and for your relentless energy and drive to communicate those results to us all. Finally, thanks for being a friendly and kind person. Being numbered among your students and colleagues has been one of the most unexpected honors and pleasures of my life.

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