Born in Ukraine in 1909, he was taken to the United States (PA) as a child.
A student in the Oriental Studies department, he received his bachelor’s (1930), master’s (1932), and doctoral (1934) degrees from the University of Pennsylvania. He began teaching at Penn in 1931, and would go on to found the linguistics department there in 1947, the first such department in the country.
Harris carried the structural linguistic ideas of Leonard Bloomfield to their furthest logical development: to discover the linear distributional relations of phonemes and morphemes.
His “Methods in Structural Linguistics” (1951) established his scholarly reputation as a theorist. In subsequent work on discourse analysis, Harris suggested the use of transformations as a means of expanding his method of descriptive analysis to cross sentence boundaries.
Since Harris was Noam Chomsky’s teacher, some linguists have questioned whether Chomsky’s transformational grammar is as revolutionary as it has been portrayed, but the two scholars developed their ideas in different contexts and for different purposes.