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Kenneth L. Pike (1912–2000)

A Daughter's Tribute

By Barbara Pike Ibach

Kenneth Pike, 1993


Christian, translator, scholar,
linguist, friend, poet, husband,
father, grandfather, great-grandfather.

Generations of Pike families have acknowledged the importance of the Word of God in their lives. Thus, Kenneth Pike grew up influenced by his grandfather who was a preacher and his father who had been a medical missionary. At Gordon College, Kenneth's commitment to God and his Word deepened, and his goal to be a missionary was strengthened.

Kenneth heard of Camp Wycliffe, a new group, whose mission was to translate the Bible for people whose language had never been put into written form. In 1935, Kenneth hitchhiked from his home in Connecticut to Sulphur Springs, Arkansas, to join the team. His luggage was a suitcase with "ARK" written in large print on the side. Taking classes there from W. Cameron Townsend and others, he studied language-learning techniques including phonetics.

Elvira, Townsend's wife, had a heart problem. So, Townsend asked his niece, Evelyn Griset, if she would take a year away from her studies at UCLA to live and travel and take care of Elvira. Evelyn did. It was during that year of 1935 that Kenneth met Evelyn and introduced her to the wonders of phonetics.

After a year in the field studying Mixtec in southern Mexico, at the urging of Townsend, Kenneth went to the University of Michigan in 1937 to study linguistics with Edward Sapir and other members of the Linguistic Society of America. God blessed Kenneth in this pursuit of excellence in scholarship. He found an academic mentor in Charles Fries.

Evelyn and Kenneth Pike wedding, 1938
In 1938, Evelyn joined Wycliffe and she and Kenneth were married in Mexico City. This began the dynamic Pike partnership in which Kenneth was the theoretician and Evelyn helped clarify and teach.

Kenneth Pike graduation, 1942Kenneth continued his study of linguistics, dividing his time between studying Mixtec in southern Mexico, teaching at Camp Wycliffe (later SIL), and studying at the University of Michigan. During that period their first child Judith was born. In 1942 Kenneth was awarded his Ph.D. in linguistics at the University of Michigan.

While his focus was always on translating the Bible, he took delight in unraveling and understanding the intricacies of language. He and Evelyn wanted to help others understand the process of language learning and translation, and to be better equipped to translate God's Word.

Pike family 1956The Pike family continued to grow with the birth of their second child, Barbara, and several years later, Stephen. The three children joined their parents in their travels. Most summers were spent at the University of Oklahoma where both Kenneth and Evelyn taught. Then followed time in fieldwork in Mexico or other countries during the Fall terms. The winter-spring semesters were usually spent at the University of Michigan where Kenneth taught linguistics. Travel time with the family was a change of focus for Kenneth. When they were in the car for days at a time, the family had his undivided attention. It was a time for telling family stories and creating new ones. It was a time of rest and, often to a child's dismay, a time to work on multiplication tables or learning to give descriptive words to passing scenery. Singing and a harmonica often fit in somewhere.

Linguistic workshops were conducted in different countries to assist Bible translators in solving problems which they encountered, and to encourage them in their work. Lectures were arranged to introduce linguistics to government and academic groups. Kenneth and Evelyn also led in starting other SIL schools in Australia, England, and Germany.

Kenneth Pike and Tom Headland, 1994Through the years Kenneth continued, as he had begun, exploring and applying new ideas and methods. In later years they often took their grandchildren on trips abroad where they introduced them to different languages and cultures. As the growing years began to catch up with and overtake his energy, Kenneth increasingly shifted his focus and energy to encouraging young linguists and translators, and to supporting and cheering the accomplishments of seasoned ones. Just six weeks before he died, Kenneth revisited the language-learning process and beginning literacy with his great-grandson Jonathan Benison via Dr. Seuss books and videotapes, to the delight and satisfaction of them both.


Barbara Pike Ibach is the second child of Kenneth and Evelyn. She wrote this in the spring of 2001, shortly after the death of her father. She and her husband David Ibach live in Livonia, Michigan. They have two adult children and two grandchildren, Jonathan, born in 1998, and Anneke, born in 2000. The Pike family photographs on this webpage and those in the photo gallery are part of Barbara's personal photo collection.