Language, My life

Back when I was a real linguist…

…one of my profs was Kenneth Pike. He was an eminence in American linguistics, although his name became less known following the Chomskyan revolution. Pike is responsible for the terms “etic” and “emic” which have to do with description of behavior by an outside observer or by an insider. His 1943 book Phonetics was for many years the most comprehensive resource for articulatory phonetics, his 1947 book Phonemics became the essential text on phonology, and those are just two of 0ver 250 works he published in the course of over 60 years as a linguist.

One of my favorite and most challenging courses in grad school was a history of American linguistics taught by Dr. Pike. Our text was a pamphlet written in 1965 by him and his sister Eunice Pike called Live Issues in Descriptive Linguistics, which was a linguistics bibliography organized under discussion questions. For each class, one of the discussion questions was assigned and we had to read several of the listed publications and write a response paper. In class, Pike would flip through our papers, select a few, and cross-examine each author regarding what he had said. (I don’t recall any women in that class.) It could be quite intimidating.

One of my proudest moments was when I compared an old article by Pike on Immediate Constituent analysis with one by Longacre (another of my profs and a close colleague of Pike’s) on string analysis. IC analysis breaks linguistic constructs into two parts (subject/predicate, verb phrase/prepositional phrase, preposition/noun phrase, etc.) until a sentence is completely parsed. String analysis, on the other hand, parses a sentence based on the number of sentence-level elements it contains (subject/verb/object/location/time, etc.) and then each of those elements is parsed similarly. I argued that the IC assumption that each structure can be divided into two primary parts was arbitrary, and that the tree chart in Pike’s article made it look like some phrase elements were at the same level as some sentence elements, whereas Longacre’s chart made it much clearer to which level the elements belonged. Pike and I had a fairly long discussion about this in class, while my classmates looked on in admiration and/or bewilderment. In the end, Pike agreed with me.

Occasionally Ken  would scrawl comments in the margins of our papers. His handwriting was worse than a medical doctor’s. I once showed him one of his notes and asked him what it said. He stared at it and said, “I have no idea.”

Pike’s sister Eunice and wife Evelyn were also outstanding linguists. I never had a class with either, but Eunice had taught phonology to some of my classmates, and Evelyn lectured in Pike’s class once on discourse analysis. I argued with Evelyn about one part of her analysis of a narrative about the Dunkirk evacuation; the story included a sentence something along the lines of “Then a miracle began to occur.” Evelyn had charted it as a sequential part of the narrative, whereas I argued that it was an editorial comment by the narrator. She agreed that I had a valid point.

I sat with the Pikes three times that I can recall: for a UTA faculty meeting (I was briefly an adjunct professor), in the cafeteria at the SIL linguistics institute, and at a neighborhood association meeting (the Pikes lived a couple of blocks from me in a little neighborhood full of missionary linguists). Each time we had stimulating conversations. At least once, maybe twice, I heard Ken ask his wife afterwards, “Who was that young man?” He was a genius but not known for his social skills.

Pike died in 2000. Evelyn died just the other day. You can read her obit here.

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9 thoughts on “Back when I was a real linguist…

  1. How wonderful that these people were in your life, and you in their lives. Sounds like you all learned from each other.
    I will check out the links to get to know them even more.
    That he couldn’t make out his own handwriting made me laugh. 😛
    HUGS!!! for you and Alicia and Happy Whee-kend!!! 🙂

  2. You knew Pike and Longacre as a student? I’m jealous. I did an undergraduate concentration in cognitive science with a focus on language and logic (intending to specialize in AI in grad school). Mainly I was interested in syntax, and the linguistic theory we got was Chomsky’s stuff of course. A lot has changed since then, it’s not all transformational grammar anymore—but of course, it never was, except that Chomsky was so dominant for a while.

    • Being at SIL was an exhilarating experience. I was surrounded by linguistic and Bible translation pioneers, telling their stories about arriving among an isolated tribe by foot or raft or mule, figuring out how to do tonal analysis, etc., when little or nothing had been written about it. Most of Pike’s early writings were to fill voids: phonetics, phonology, syntax, tone analysis, intonation… His sister Eunice wrote several great books about her work among the Mazatec in the 1930s and 1940s.

      I’m sure linguistics has come a long way since the early 1990s. The grammatical models used in SIL back then were tagmemics (Pike & Pike, Shin-Ja Hwang), relational (some sort of loosey-goosey model in which you drew umbrellas that indicated things about referent identification, as far as I could tell), and very little TG because it was useless for descriptive linguistics for the most part. I studied stratificational linguistics under Ilah Fleming, the greatest unpublished linguist in the country. She died a few years later without having published anything. I don’t know if her theory is still being taught in SIL, but it was a fabulous approach for cataloguing language for translation and for text analysis. Basically a slot-and-filler model applied at all levels, marking positions sequentially before and after the nucleus of the structure rather than trying to torture traditional grammatical terms to apply them to languages that work totally different from English or Latin, and charting relationships between the Communication Situation, Semantic, Syntactic, and Phonological strata. Cumbersome but exhaustive.

      I went to LASSO (Linguistics Association of the Southwesst) to present a paper (analyzing a Hausa folk tale) in 1990. The other presenters in the text analysis forum seemed mostly to be Deborah Tannen disciples, talking about “the development of tellability” or aspects of James Joyce’s Ulysses. I asked the girl who wrote about tellability how she did her research to determine how narration had changed over the centuries. She seemed startled by the question, which seemed odd to me because in descriptive linguistics, methodology is supremely important. My conclusion was that her research was largely speculation. In syntax sessions I heard transformationalists go on and on about “the spec of C” and say things like, “Isn’t that our task as linguists, to disambiguate sentences?” I thanked God that the approaches I had been taught were so much more concrete and practical.

      While I was doing my MA, the hot thing in phonology was autosegmental, and there was a move toward doing away with the phoneme as a unit. I haven’t read any linguistics since the mid-90s so I have no idea what has transpired, but I doubt the phoneme could be abolished for long.

      Obviously I miss linguistics. I work as a translator and have no occasion to read serious linguistics journals or books or do meticulous analysis beyond trying to figure out how to render my current task in English or Spanish. Maybe that’s why I’m so bored so much of the time.

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