SIL International Home

Kenneth L. Pike (1912–2000)

Memorial Tributes

A memorial service for Kenneth Pike was held January 6, 2001. During the service, an opportunity was given to share memories about Dr. Pike. These are excerpts from some of the tributes presented at the memorial service and from others received later.

The day I heard the news of the passing of Ken Pike, I took down from the shelf in our house in New York a copy of the book entitled Pike's Perspectives and browsed through it again. I marveled anew at the wide range of Ken Pike's wit and wisdom revealed in the things that he shared with his colleagues through the years. The self-deprecating humor, the passion for excellence, the concern for academic credentials, the desire to help the rest of us catch the vision for becoming scholar servants to serve God with heart and mind. But what has had the greatest impact on me is the way Ken both modeled and articulated the very distinctive role of SIL as an organization. He wrote, "Remember that God called us as an institution very different from any other institution in the world known to me, to go abroad and work for our translations and scientific output. Linguistics is done, not because it helps translation. It does help translation, but we also do scientific work for the will of God.

—Carolyn Miller
President, SIL International


Ken's sharing at Norman, Oklahoma SIL brought tears to our eyes and passion to our hearts, both for the Word of God and the peoples of the earth. He tried hard, above all else, to keep the humanity of the speakers of language front and center, recognizing that human beings are made in the image of their Creator. He resisted, as he saw it, the strong desire of the day to treat language as purely a mental abstraction without human flesh.

—John Watters
Executive Director, SIL International


As a linguist scientist, Ken taught me the essence of scholarship, of true science and of its place in life and its limitation in relation to life. He formed my approach to life, to scholarship, to science and to God. He considered them all inseparable. I believe Ken's most important contribution to scholarship was the holistic approach, his insistence on the interconnectedness of everything in life, even at times when that was not at all popular.

—Frank Robbins
Former President, SIL International


Ken was a tremendous help to me personally, not only as a role model, but as a mentor and friend. In 1946 I wrote a paper on the full names of Sierra Popoluca, and after I showed it to him that summer, he suggested that I read it at the Linguistic Society of America, which was meeting at the University of Michigan that summer. And so I did. When they questioned me about it afterwards, Ken was the one who helped answer the questions. For me, Ken was like a giant tree that I could lean against.

—Ben Elson
Former Executive Director, SIL International


At the American Anthropological Association's annual meeting in 1988, Ken and Marvin Harris from the University of Florida participated in a debate. Marvin Harris, a Marxist-oriented anthropologist, was considered the leading theoretician in anthropology in the USA. I was the moderator for the debate, which went on for 4 ½ hours to an audience of over 600 anthropologists. During the discussion period a man in the audience asked a question. To answer him, Ken was thinking of an incident that happened in Russia, but couldn't remember a name. He looked out over the audience and suddenly said, "Evie, are you out there? Who was that man we had dinner with in Moscow?" Evie was sitting way in the back. She stood up and said, "Ken, that was Dr. So-and so." Ken said, "That's right." And he finished answering the question.

I went to the microphone to call on the next person but before I did I said, "Let me stop here, colleagues, to tell you who that was in the back of the room. That was Kenneth Pike's wife, Evelyn Pike, and they are here with us this week celebrating their fiftieth wedding anniversary." Everyone started clapping. Even the stuffy, gray-haired anthropologists were cheering. Then, Ken without even a thought, stood up, leaned across the table and blew Evie a kiss. The audience roared with even louder cheering and shrill whistles. I have never seen anthropologists act like that in my whole life.

—Tom Headland
SIL International Anthropology Consultant


Dr. Pike went to Papua New Guinea to run a three-month workshop in 1961. One evening, after eating dinner with another family, Ken appeared at our door. "Can I have a cup of tea?" An SIL linguist from another branch was staying with us at that time and he asked Pike a linguistic theory question, taking advantage of this precious time alone with him. But Pike turned to Joice and asked, "Can I have some paper and scissors please?" He then proceeded to fold the paper and cut out strings of intricate dolls and animals for our young son Kirk. Linguistic theory was finished for that day.

—Karl Franklin
VP Academic Affairs, SIL International


I couldn't possibly begin my remarks without relating a very short one-minute joke that Ken once told:

So the mouse ran into the hole, frightened with all its life. "There is a cat outside!" he said to the second mouse. The second mouse said, "Don't worry about that." They could hear the cat outside the mouse hole. So the second mouse stood by the side of the hole. "Woof, Woof, Woof!" The cat took off. And the second mouse said, "See, I told you it pays to learn a second language."

Kenneth Pike understood with all his heart and soul and mind the power of human language. It is with that in mind that I bring to you the greetings and condolences of the Linguistic Society of America who yesterday remembered Ken Pike at their annual business meeting. I also bring to you the greetings and condolences of UTA, in particular my colleagues in the linguistics program. The faculty and students alike will miss Ken dearly. And finally, I speak on behalf of all young men and women like myself who have decided to devote a life to language. Thank you, Ken, for paving the way for us.

—Dr. David Silva
Director, Linguistic Program at the Univ. of Texas at Arlington


I just learned about the passing of Ken Pike. What a giant he was in so many ways! I am ever grateful that Frank Robbins arranged for me to spend some time chatting with him when I visited in November 1999. Such a loss for so many.

—Dr. Dick Tucker
Chair, Department of Languages and Linguistics
Carnegie Melon University
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania


The incident I wanted to recount took place in the late 1970s in Cameroon. I happened to be director there at that time. Dr. Pike and Evelyn were coming through on one of their countless worldwide tours to help scholars and to promote SIL. I went down to the US Embassy and was able to talk to the Cultural Attaché and ask if we could have a public lecture in their auditorium. The Cultural Attaché said , "A lecture on linguistics? Dr. Kenneth Pike? I don't think we are interested." I went back to see him several times and finally he relented and said we could use their auditorium that had 99 seats, but it was then 4:00 in the afternoon. I was able to arrange with the national radio station to announce at the 5:00 news that Dr. Kenneth Pike would be giving a lecture at the US Embassy auditorium at 6:00—one hour after this announcement. Nothing had been done beforehand; no one knew anything. We wondered what would happen. The doors opened and not only were all of the 99 seats filled, but all around the auditorium there was standing room only. Dr. Pike gave his lecture and most astoundingly, when he opened the floor for questions there were a number of Cameroonians who asked about his theories and discussed intelligently his writings. It was a very lively question-and-discussion session. The next day I went to see the Cultural Attaché to thank him and as you can imagine, his attitude toward linguistics, toward Dr. Pike and SIL were greatly changed.

—David Maranz
Retired SIL Anthropologist