11 March, 2002

Kenneth L. Hale (1934-2001)

Aram A. Yengoyan
University of California/Davis

I first met Ken Hale in Alice Springs, Central Australia, in 1966. He was starting a second phase of work on Walbiri (which he had already mastered), and I was beginning social anthropological fieldwork with the Pitjantjatjara of the western desert. Frequently we would squirrel away in the local pubs to talk "shop," and it was in this context that I time and again witnessed Hale’s remarkable skills with language. It was one thing for him to speak to Walbiri speakers in Walbiri, but quite another to observe him changing from Walbiri to Aranda, Kaitish, Warramunga or Loritja. The Aboriginal men were visibly affected by his abilities and his virtuosity in moving from one speaker to another--always done in a natural, self-effacing manner, low key, modest to an extreme, and humble beyond the meaning of that word. They would lean over and ask me if he was a missionary. I would say, "No, he is a linguist." And they would ask, "What is that?"

"That," for Ken Hale, was in fact a complex combination of all of the above, and more. A master of verbal skills with an amazing ability to learn multiple new languages, he also possessed uncanny insight into the deepest structural significance of these languages. And he was a linguist with a mission. Thus Hale the polyglot was also Hale the theoretician, and became Hale the advocate.

With the death of Ken Hale on October 8th, 2001 at his home in Lexington, Massachusetts, anthropology and linguistics lost one of the true intellectual and humanistic giants of our time. Not only was Hale a voice for a kind of linguistics, his unique ability as a true polyglot was the lasting voice for languages which we now label endangered, what Chomsky called "a voice for the voiceless." Hale’s interest in languages started in grade school in rural Arizona where he learned Hopi and Jemez from classmates, and in his high school years adding knowledge of Navajo, Papago, O’odam and whatever else came in his direction, such as Polish.

His interest in the languages and the life of the Southwest (he maintained a lifelong passion for riding bulls) eventually led to a B.A. degree in Anthropology from the University of Arizona (1955) and a Ph.D. in Linguistics from Indiana University (1959). After teaching at the University of Illinois/Urbana and the University of Arizona, Hale joined the faculty of the Department of Linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1967, where he spent the remainder of his career. During nearly four decades of scholarly work, Hale published over 130 lengthy articles on a variety of languages, subjects and topics that would baffle the comprehension of most ordinary individuals.

Hale, the Polyglot

Virtually anyone--native speaker, linguist, student, taxi driver, gas station attendant, poetic society doyen, colleague--who came in contact with Hale soon realized his unique talent for learning and speaking languages and his ability to retain them in a creative style. Accounts of Hale and Basque, Hale and Gaelic, Hale and Turkish abound where ever he worked. Yet, his efforts and talents were not only scholarly, but were based on a true conviction that his ability to speak these languages was vital to his theoretical ideas and his sense of language advocacy. Furthermore, the rewards accrued by communicating in these small, endangered languages were reciprocal in that native speakers often found details and structures which they could be proud of (Hale, 1971).

The published obituaries on Hale note that he had a speaking knowledge of more than fifty languages, a claim that his modesty would deny. Each language was a challenge which he carried with him wherever he went, from central Australia to Nicaragua, the American southwest, Ireland, Basque, and his concern to revive Wampanoag, the language which the Pilgrims encountered in Massachusetts. The stories and legends of his polyglot abilities abound like a myth [but are also reality].

Furthermore, most of Hale’s intellectual and political convictions emerge and evolve from this truly unique polyglotism. In various interviews, Hale, on being asked about this ability, would respond "the problem is that many of the languages I’ve learned are extinct, or close to extinction, and I have no one to speak them with." One quickly realizes that languages are like art, they are masterpieces whose creation is only once. Linguistics has had very few polyglots, and the trajectory of polyglots in terms of comparative and analytic thought is significantly variable (Golla, 2002).

Hale’s interest in languages was never limited to those fifty or more which he had mastered in varying degrees. This broad interest also embraced languages which he did not speak, those he only knew of through working with grammars and texts, a true Boasian in the tradition of Sapir. Some years ago, I asked Hale that if we took English as a totality, what language as a totality would represent the extreme polar opposite of English. I am sure he had never received such a question, and he pondered it like a computer for thirty minutes. I would have thought it might have been a language he spoke, but it was not. After deliberation with himself, he concluded that the total polar opposite would be Coast Salish, the native language around the Gulf of Georgia, Puget Sound, and parts of the Olympic Peninsula in western Washington. What ensued was a two to three hour discussion by Hale on the differences and their significance within each language.

Hale, the Theoretician

One of the basic approaches critical to Hale’s work was the ability to move from the particular and possibly the unique to the universal or semi-universal and vice versa. Throughout four decades of writing on languages and language, Hale’s works have demonstrated how one level informs the other. The best insight into this process is seen in Hale’s piece (1976) titled "Linguistic Autonomy and the Linguistics of Carl F. Voegelin." Here, he set forth the contrast between ‘Autonomous Systems’ and ‘Dependent Systems’ in the analysis of language. In the Autonomous category, "A language consists of a number of distinct systems, each possessing inherent principles of organization which are utterly independent of factors relating to any other linguistic system or to extralinguistic factors" (Hale 1976:121), while in the Dependent, "A language consists of a single unified system?or else a set of tightly integrated systems?whose inherent principles of organization are often intimately related to factors belonging to conceptually distinct realms, including extralinguistic factors" (Hale 1976: 121).

Thus the determination of the loci of universals was a lifelong concern for Hale. He concluded that:

my feeling is the ‘universals’ in this case belong properly to the category of relative implications within the typology which grows out of the Autonomous Systems view of language. That is to say, these universals are not to be represented directly in the grammars of specific languages. (Hale 1976: 127) By tracing this distinction, Hale (1975) dealt with the problem of embeddedness in language and culture. Here the paramount question is, does the absence of the universal in the particular refute the existence of the universal? In analyzing Walbiri forms of enumeration, Hale noted that the concept of counting is probably a universal, but its conventionalized manifestation or its empirical existence might be absent. The central issue is that the absence of the trait in the particular does not disprove the existence of the universal, which must be comprehended as a concept and not in its empirical existence. To move from the universal to an empirical existence, one must recognize that culture, like language, is a process of embeddedness. Thus on first appearance, cultural or linguistic features might be absent in the particular, but the investigator must keep in mind that certain features might be subsumed or subordinate to other correspondences.

Throughout his writings, Hale (1971, 1973, 1975) constantly stressed that the central task is to relate the particular to the universal and vice versa. But my impression is that, with all this entire range of linguistic skills at his disposal, Hale yet seemed to prefer analyses that probe the particular. While he was aware that details and facets of a language at one level may relate to generalization and comparative (possibly universal) ends, he took pleasure in turning his analysis toward a level of investigation that might yield findings unique to the given context, but not amenable to generalizations. Much of Hale’s work seemed to be guided by his quest to find why and how some languages possess so much internal variation, difference, and uniqueness, either at the grammatical or even morphological level. The issue for him was not one of expanding the universal to account for internal variation, which would ultimately make the universal so general that all of its theoretical power would be lost. Rather, what he found essential was to maintain the sense of language and its speakers as a creative phenomenon, and linguistic creativity as the ability of speakers to intellectualize their language using a sense of play that creates ever-new combinations.

The best examples of this process of intellectualization and play are found in Hale’s (1971) analysis of Walbiri antonymy and in the various pieces on Lardil/Damin (temiin). Both cases are quite complex, yet in each, Hale deciphered a linguistic logic which formed the basis permitting young novices to learn Jiliwarri or Damin (special ceremonial languages) in an extraordinarily short amount of time.

Hale’s interest in how linguistic play works and what it creates was truly unique in a generation of linguistics and linguists which has stressed formalisms and abstract theoretical paradigms. The idea of play was noted earlier by the anthropologist A.L. Kroeber (1952) and by the Dutch historian Johan Huizenga, in Homo Ludens (1949).What made Hale’s work remarkable was that he recorded how this idea works, what is done, how far it can be expanded, and the kinds of implications that speakers draw from their own utterances and the respective structures. The process of intellectualization might or might not be universal, but wherever it is found, it is a result of differentiation, distanciation, and the ability of speakers to move outside of their linguistic milieu and comprehend a speech pattern as a linguist might. A more comprehensive account of Hale’s theoretical writings as they relate to anthropological theory is found in Yengoyan (2001).

Hale’s lifelong curiosity and polyglot abilities always focused on the particular, which may reflect universals or semi-universals. For those of us who saw Hale work in the field, it was always a pleasure to watch him delve into the particular to the sub-particular as a means of participating in the nitty-gritty that makes language truly unique. Surely the detailed nuances of language have little to do with communication per se, but they do reflect the creativity which only native speakers (and Hale) can pursue to their logical (and possibly absurd) ends with a sense of pleasure and glee.

Hale, the Advocate

In the early 1970s, Hale’s commitment to native speakers addressed the question of the professionalization of the discipline. Within the context of North American universities and their graduate programs, few native speakers have been able to pursue higher degrees. The professionalism and the top-heavy degree requirements have favored a particular group of people who can afford the "luxury" of spending five to nine years in graduate studies towards M.A. and Ph.D. degrees. Yet on a number of occasions Hale worked with native speakers at MIT with the aim of training speakers in linguistics who would return to their communities and continue work on their languages. In some cases, they received a Ph.D. The real concern, however, was to provide a means of training which would be recognized within the profession, but which would avoid the lengthy time commitment currently demanded. This appeal was voiced by Hale in the early 1970s, but American universities and their graduate programs have been extremely slow or reluctant to meet the challenge.

The consequences of this inaction are now visibly and permanently damaging. Globally, many languages are classified as endangered, the remnants of their native speakers having been reduced to half dozen or fewer speakers. In many cases, it might be too late to record anything or even to rectify the situation. If Hale’s appeals of thirty years ago had been even partially addressed by the profession and also the universities, this drastic situation might have been partly alleviated.

This brings me to the last point of how Hale’s work over the past four decades inverted the normal career paths that linguists in general have pursued. In linguistics, like most of the social sciences, an academic is known by his or her theoretical, comparative or interpretive pieces that address the intellectual concerns and paradigms central to the scholarly profession at the time. The writing of abstract grammars, transformational rules, arguments over binding and governance, etc., have dictated what a scholar was all about. If one worked on an "exotic" language, one usually worked on the deep structure as it reflected universals in such matters as clause structures and the relative clause. All of these activities were done in the prime of one’s scholarly writing. But dictionaries and vocabularies were different. Compiling of word lists into dictionaries and lexicons was something that one normally did in the twilight of one’s scholarly career. Again, the assumption behind this division of labour was that dictionaries and lexicons could be done by anyone; they were something which was routine and mundane; they did not require any deep analytical thinking; and last, they only required a sorting out of 3 x 5 inch file cards into some alphabetic logic.

Hale started compiling dictionaries and vocabularies at an early phase in his career. In fact, the Walbiri dictionary project was started in the 1970s and was recently completed. Hale et al. (1981) issued the preliminary Lardil dictionary a few years later, and that project was just finalized. A close reading of Hale’s vita also indicates that his field notes, which he would always generously allow others to use, were the basis of vocabularies and word lists for a number of languages such as Warumungu, Kuurinyji, Antikirinya, Arabpana, Diyari and other languages.

But, as any reader would acknowledge, there are dictionaries and there are dictionaries. In both Walbiri and Lardil, the meticulous analysis of roots and compound forms has made the entire endeavour a project of intense care and detail, combined with a dedication that is unique. Furthermore, Hale has always been concerned with producing dictionaries that can be used by native speakers. The detailed treatment of each entry includes the various meanings of the word and its linguistic category, each designation followed by illuminating examples. Each entry is fully explored in regard to its potential nuances and the conditions of its use. Just browsing through A Preliminary Dictionary of Lardil is nearly equivalent to reading an encyclopaedia. Thus, for Hale, the dictionary was not a venture of the twilight.

Furthermore, dictionaries have a critical role in Hale’s political stance. Speakers of exotic languages, endangered or not, have long felt that dictionaries and useful vocabularies are the most essential contribution that linguists can provide to their social life and the succeeding generations, where language loss is even greater. Hale’s politics and scholarly production understood this message nearly four decades ago. Dictionaries, lexicons, vocabularies and word lists should be the lasting legacy which will encourage language reproduction and diversity. The culmination of Hale’s views on language endangerment in its various expressions is best conveyed in The Green Book of Language Revitalization in Practice, edited by Leanne Hinton and Ken Hale.


In memory, Ken Hale’s spirit, talents, mind and the person will always be with us. His labors and warmth towards all who knew him will not be forgotten with the passage of time. Honors bestowed on him included a named professorship at MIT, his election to the National Academy of Sciences (1990), and president of the Linguistic Society of America (1994-1995). In the past two years he had three festschriften published in his honor by colleagues at MIT, in Australia and from the American Southwest. And now we await the publication of Hale’s A Prolegomena to a Theory of Lexical Argument Structure. (MIT Press).

And what other academic would have an obituary in The Economist (November 3, 2001), and be featured in a major segment by Alistair Cooke "Kenneth Hale... an Extraordinary American," Cooke’s ‘Letter from America,’ December 3, 2001; BBC and rebroadcast worldwide from December 2, 2001.

* ‘Finis’ in Walbiri.


Acknowledgements. I wish to thank Sara Whitaker Hale, Hale’s widow, for providing critical biographical information for this obituary. My lifelong friendship with Sara/Sally is as keenly developed as it was with Ken. Special thanks to David Nash of the Australian National University, Canberra for directing me to the range of obituary notices. My appreciation to Kathleen Vander Meer who read and edited parts of this work in various drafts.

References Cited

Golla, Victor 2002 Editorial Notes?Hale, Wurm, and Mezzofanti. The Society for the Study of the Indigenous Languages of the Americas, Newsletter XX:4, pp. 2?4. Hale, Kenneth 1971 A Note on a Walbiri Tradition of Autonymy. In Semantics: An Interdisciplinary Reader in Philosophy, Linguistics and Psychology. Danny D. Steinberg and Leon A. Jakobovits, eds. Pp. 472-482. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

1973 A Note on Subject-object Inversion in Navajo. In Issues in Linguistics: Papers in Honor of Henry and René Kahane. Braj B. Kachru, Robert B. Lees, Yakov Malkiel, Angelina Pietrangeli, and Sal Saporta, eds. Pp. 300-309. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

1975 Gaps in Grammar and Culture. In Linguistics and Anthropology: In Honor of C.F. Voegelin. Dale Kinkade, Kenneth L. Hale, and Oswald Werner, eds. Pp. 295-315. Lisse: Peter De Ridder Press.

1976 Linguistic Autonomy and the Linguistics of Carl Voegelin. Anthropological Linguistics 18(3):120-128.

Hale, Ken, Ann Farmer, David Nash and Jane Simpson 1981 A Preliminary Dictionary of Lardil. Typescript, MIT.AIATSIS MS 1582. Hinton, Leanne and Ken Hale (eds.) 2001 The Green Book of Language Revitalization in Practice. San Diego: Academic Press. Huizenga, Johan 1949 Homo ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. Kroeber, A.L. 1952 The Nature of Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Yengoyan, Aram A. 2001 On the Love of Languages. In Forty Years On: Ken Hale and Australian Languages. Jane Simpson, David Nash, Mary Laughren, Peter Austin and Barry Alpher, eds. Pp. 113-122. Pacific Linguistics, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, The Australian National University, Canberra, Australia. Return to Hale page