Kenneth Locke Hale

August 15, 1934-October 8, 2001

A memorial service was held on 1 November 2001 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts at which participants commented in English, Hebrew, Hopi, Navajo and Wampanoag (the latter three native American languages) and Walpiri (an Australian aboriginal language). The service was being held for Kenneth Locke Hale, Professor of Linguistics at MIT since 1967 and the only man in the world who, had he lived, would have been able to understand each of the speakers at his own memorial.

As a young man growing up in Canelo, Arizona, the unlikely worlds of exotic languages and the American Southwest blended in him. He was, for example, the bull-riding champion of the University of Arizona rodeo in his senior year at college. He wore the belt buckle that he won almost daily. Hale discovered his Mozart-like facility for language as a ninth grader when he acquired Navajo with the ease young children display in acquiring their native language. This ability, which every human being has and which appears to shut off at puberty, never closed down in Hale. From the point of view of learning a language, he was a young child throughout his life. Although he had a speaking knowledge of over 50 languages, Hale always claimed that he could only "talk" three, English, Spanish and Warlpiri. Those to whom he spoke in one of the other 47 languages would demur.

He told a New York Times interviewer in 1997 that when he discovered he knew Navajo, he would "…go out every day and sit on a rock and talk Navajo to myself." He was fifteen years old at the time and a student at the Verde Valley School where he roomed first with a Hopi and then with a Jemez speaker. He studied Spanish and French during the classroom hours and Hopi and Jemez after the bell had rung. Because the latter two languages had no writing system, he devised his own. His teacher objected to his learning so many languages at once. Hale ignored her advice. He said that she never understood that the more languages he studied, the faster he learned each of them. By the time he had left high school, he had added Polish and Tohono O’odham (Papago) to his list.

It was not simply that Hale was a remarkable polyglot. He coupled his facility for language with a creative theoretical imagination that has had a major impact on the shape of linguistic studies over the past quarter century. His work on so-called "non-configurational languages" set an agenda that is still being energetically explored. So, too, with his work on "lexical argument structure," an interest which began with his involvement in the Warlpiri Dictionary Project at MIT’s Center for Cognitive Science in 1979.

The majority of Hale’s theoretical contributions are embodied in over 130 scholarly articles. Just two months before his death Hale managed to finish the only book he ever wrote, A Prolegomenon to a Theory of Lexical Argument Structure (MIT Press, forthcoming). It was also the last linguistics he was able to do. (As co-author of this volume I am acutely aware of how much more he had to offer if only his body had let him.)

Hale’s work in language reclamation was as important to him as anything else in his academic life. His work on dictionaries as a way of preserving an endangered language ranges from the Warlpiri Dictionary Project to work on Ulwa and Miskitu (two Misumalpan languages native to Nicaragua). Part of the reason for the importance of this work to him, as well as his efforts on behalf of bilingual education­Hale co-authored a recommendation with Geoff O’Grady that formed the foundation of bilingual education in the Northern Territory of Australia­is that it had a moral dimension for him. Hale was driven by the need to help those whose resources left them helpless. In a tribute to Hale, Noam Chomsky referred to him as "a voice for the voiceless." For thirty years he was an active member of the anti-war organization, Resist.

Over the course of his life a number of honors fell on Hale’s shoulders, uncomfortably so, because he was a genuinely modest man. In 1989 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and in the following year to the National Academy of Sciences. He was elected President of the Linguistic Society of America for the years 1994-95. In 1981 he was appointed the Ferrari P. Ward Professor of Linguistics at MIT. I was department head at the time and it was my duty to confer this honor on him. I knew that were he to hear of it before the fact, he would refuse it on the grounds that others were more deserving. Since his appointment to the chair was unanimously recommended by his colleagues in an informal poll, I was able to confer the chair without his prior knowledge. When the appointment was finalized, I told him there was good news and bad news. The good news was that the Ferrari P. Ward Chair had a new recipient. The bad news was that he was it.

Recently I received an e-mail account of an event that more than anything takes the measure of the man. One of Hale’s sons, Caleb, is a medical student at Emory University. A fellow student wrote to tell him about something that happened during an orientation meeting with a well-known and "old-fashioned" neurological doctor. The doctor, to impress upon his students the need to think things through in order to learn them well, pulled out a copy of the New York Times and read from an obituary published there. The doctor told his students how impressed he was by this incredible linguist’s ability to learn and to think. He had no idea this linguist’s son was a member of the class he was lecturing to. The doctor singled out Hale’s speaking Navajo to himself while sitting on a rock in the desert as an example of coming to terms with an extraordinarily complicated body of knowledge. The fellow student concluded her account by saying, "It’s pretty amazing that your father can have that kind of an impact on such a wide circle."

As time goes on, we will feel our loss less, but the impact his life has had on all of us, more.

Hale died of cancer in his own home surrounded by family and friends at 11:20am, October 8, 2001. He leaves behind his wife, Sara Whitaker Hale, fours sons Whit, Ian, and twins Caleb and Ezra, and his younger brother, Steve and his family.

Samuel Jay Keyser
Professor Emeritus, MIT
Cambridge, MA 02140
© 2001

Shortened version published in the Guardian, 10 November 2001

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