Kenneth L. Pike (1912–2000)

A Linguistic Pilgrimage*

Kenneth L. Pike


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2. Joy and stress as pushing my first linguistic decade, 1935–1945

2.1 Starting new dreams—from sadness

I was born in Woodstock, Connecticut, in 1912 (as the seventh of eight children—Eunice was the eighth). It was a small New England Village, on the ‘common’. There was a one-room red brick school house, with eight grades, one teacher, and about thirty students. The village was ‘half a crossroads’—with one general store for groceries, mail, hardware, and gasoline. From there I went to Woodstock Academy (founded as a private school in 1801, I think), four miles away, in the same township—but in a different village. (Part of the time, I drove a horse and buggy to school—but some of the time I walked.) There were about fifty students, and four teachers. I was too young to get into athletics; I had been pushed from second to fourth grade in grammar school, and from seventh directly to high school, skipping the eighth. Later, I worked for a year selling groceries in Providence, Rhode Island. Then I went on to Gordon College of Theology and Missions, in Boston (after my mother sent in my application—since I was too bashful to do it myself!). I graduated in 1933, with a major in New Testament Greek.

In 1980 my wife Evelyn and I were lecturing for a month in Beijing. At the end, the leading scholars gave us a good-bye dinner. They were top scholars in China—with Ph.D.’s from Oxford, Chicago, Yale, and Edinburgh. One of them said to me: “I am just back from lecturing at Berkeley, and heard an interesting rumor—are you a missionary, or are you a linguist?” I replied to him, as best I can remember, as follows: “In 1932, as a Christmas present to God, I applied to become a missionary to China—to live or die I didn’t care which. I couldn’t go because of health. But to serve God is still my first aim. I think, however, that if you were to ask the students who have heard us lecturing that they would tell you that we are interested in linguistics!” This double attitude grew out of my background.

My father had been a medical missionary as a young man at Metlakhatla, Alaska, in 1900, just out of medical school at the University of Michigan. But his health broke in one year. I think I must have inherited that weakness of health, which probably blocked my going to China. So I tried for a year, climbing trees as part of my job, to build my strength—but I did not overcome the problem, apparently. So I went back for a graduate year to Gordon College, and it was during this extra year that I learned that W. Cameron Townsend had in 1934 started a summer linguistic training school in Arkansas for Bible translators. I hitchhiked out there (five days!) to be with him in the summer of 1935.

There were five of us young men who were students. That experience set the tone for the rest of my life. Townsend was encouraging us to join him in a new major adventure—to get ready to study a thousand languages which seemed to need attention, to work to translate the New Testament into these languages where they did not have alphabets or written grammar, or Scriptures; to write scientific linguistic articles discussing them, for the benefit of the academic community; to prepare literacy materials and teach people to read their own languages, to help them to become members of the literate community of their countries; and to help with practical work in community development. This combination he had developed himself by a number of years’ work in Guatemala, working with the Cakchiquel language.

Curiously enough, Townsend had not himself had linguistic training—but he gave us an extraordinarily impressive model. He took a piece of cardboard and cut into it a row of ‘windows’, one window for each class of suffixes, stem, and clitics. Then he had strips of paper, each with a column of affixes written on it, with each slip appropriate to one of the slot positions. Each slot had its appropriate slip. By raising different slips, he was able to show thousands of theoretically possible verb forms. (I have often wondered whether this might have had some impact on my later development of ‘slot’ and ‘class’ in tagmemic theory!)

During that same summer, Dr. Elbert L. McCreery gave us a period of ten or so days exclusively devoted to phonetics. (He had been a missionary in Africa, but was currently on the faculty of The Bible Institute of Los Angeles.) This ten days by a ‘non-professional’ phonetician opened the door to the next decade of my academic life! I was ‘captured’ by phonetics.

2.2 Writing—from a hospital bed

The next summer, 1936. Townsend had me come back to teach phonetics at the Institute. And at the end of the summer he wanted me to write a book on it! This seemed a little bit wild after my total phonetic training of ten days! So started a few pages, and gave up—starting back to southern Mexico to follow up the work on the Mixtec language which I had chosen as my area of research. But on the way back to the area, I broke my left leg, and had to return to the hospital in Puebla. I decided that God (not just Townsend!) wanted me to write on phonetics—and that I better start doing it there! So I began writing eight hours a day in bed, with malaria returning to me, giving me a fever of 101 or so. (This material later became, roughly, the first half of my Phonemics book of 1947.)

2.3 Tone (after failure)—and a phonetics dissertation

Townsend had me studying the Mixtec language directly, without going through Spanish, since he did not want the Spanish to interfere with my learning of the Indian language. A high school boy served as a guide to take me to the area—and then left me there.

I had previously found, when I was working with an old man in Mexico City for two hours, with Townsend as interpreter, that the language was tonal! The difference between “one” and “nine” was obviously one of pitch! This was a surprise. And for two years it continued to be a problem, unsolved. Townsend, however, then urged me to go to the University of Michigan in the summer of 1937 to study with Edward Sapir, who was going to be teaching there. During the course of that summer I had a ‘coffee cup’ meeting with him for an hour or so, in which he explained to me how he had solved the tone analysis of Navaho by using the substitution of various words in a phrase (which I call a ‘frame’, within which one syllable remained constant, with a high pitch, so that he could compare the substituted words with the constant high pitch at the end of the frame). I returned to the Mixtec area that fall, and took several months getting the vocabulary ready. When I tried out the frame technique, I was able to see that the Mixtec had three tones—high, mid, and low. (A thing which had cost me great difficulty, which held up my analysis, was—in a way completely unexpected by me—that certain words caused other words to change their pitch [morphophonemically], with rules which were hidden from the surface.) When I returned to Michigan a year later, in the summer, professor Fries (who was my mentor) arranged for me to lecture to the faculty on this pitch material, and he urged me to do a dissertation on it, afterwards. (This, eventually, resulted in my book on Tone Languages published in final form in 1948, but mimeographed earlier.)

But in the summer of 1938 I returned to Michigan, and was asked by George Trager to show him how to make implosive stops. I had had to learn to handle them for Cakchiquel, since one of their speakers was a model for my students in 1936. I had had difficulty until I got help, in correspondence, from a Dr. Cummings, who had studied these sounds in India. Trager asked me to lecture on this to his class. Charles Hockett was present, and asked for a written copy of the lecture—which, in fact, I had not written. This turned out to be doubly awkward, because (as I mentioned above) the preceding summer Professor Fries had asked me to do a dissertation on the tone material. Yet instead of writing on tone I ended up working the whole winter writing on the phonetics! But Fries, as a result, now let me switch to make the phonetics my dissertation—which was finished and presented in 1941 to my committee, which included, among others, Bloomfield, Sturtevant, Marckwardt, and Fries as Chairman. (Fries then arranged to have this published by the University of Michigan Press in 1943.)

2.4 English pronunciation and intonation

In 1942, Fries asked me to help on the preparation of materials for teaching English to Latin Americans. I came to Ann Arbor to work on that, at the newly developed English Language Institute. But one of the instructors was unhappy because a student didn’t sound ‘friendly’, in his greetings, and she wanted to know why. In working on this, I brought to bear on English intonation the frame techniques which I had used for analyzing the Mixtec tone (a paradigmatic replacement of contrastive intonational pronunciations of a phrase within a clause frame). This resulted in a preliminary volume on pronunciation in 1942, and eventually led to my book on the Intonation of American English in 1945. It differed from the approach of some other scholars in that it emphasized contrastive pitch patterns, with different meanings, at particular points in a possible statement. Some scholars were more interested in a syntagmatic, rather than a paradigmatic, relationship, with emphasis on longer stretches. I wanted both. I wanted to be able to get the contrast of a dozen different pronunciations at a particular place in a sequence, and I also wanted to be able to have a number of those smaller bits united into larger syntagmatic ones. (This was possible when I had four contrastive levels of pitch, from extra high, to high, to med, to low, in which the stress could be on any one of the four, and then the following pitches could be either falling or rising where it was appropriate. And, in other contrastive bits, it could be a fall followed by a rise, or vice versa; and there could be one or more preceding unstressed syllables joined to the rhythm unit of the whole.)

2.5 A two-page phonetic-phonemic procedural syllabus

Earlier, in 1936, I had needed to teach phonetics. And in that summer Eugene Nida had called my attention to Bloomfield’s book Language of 1933, which I had not seen. By 1937 I was reading phonetic materials by Edward Sapir and Morris Swadesh. And I needed to teach my students not only the phonetics, but also the phonemics which I was now studying—in which I had had further training at the University of Michigan in the summer of ’37 and ’38.

In the fall of 1938, I was going to marry Evelyn Griset (niece of Cameron Townsend). While we were getting ready for the ceremony in Mexico City, I was publishing my first procedural material on phonetics and phonemics. It comprised one page, two sides—with phonetics on one side and with a summary of the procedures of how to analyze the phonemes of the language, on the other. (The phonemics included tone analysis as well!) This material has now been republished as Appendix 4—“Phonemic Worksheet”—in Grammatical Analysis by Kennth L. Pike & Evelyn G. Pike (2nd edition, 1982). (It still astonishes me that in such a small space one could capture such a large percentage of necessary procedural material for fieldwork.)

2.6 Plus, simultaneously, New Testament translation

During this decade, some translation was squeezed into the gaps between writing on phonetics, summer teaching of phonetics and phonemics, doing a doctorate, working in Michigan on intonation, trips to Peru, Australia, and England (in the latter two places starting SIL summer schools). In these ‘gaps’, I was able to work with Donald Stark and my Mixtec associate, Angel Merecías Sanchez on the translation of the New Testament into the Mixtec. Angel had only been through the fourth grade in grammar school, but was exceedingly brilliant. He learned to type; he could proofread the tones much more accurately than I (and he seems to me to be as brilliant as any professor I have ever met.) We got started on the work, and had the gospel of Mark and the letter to the Philippians published by 1947. The full New Testament was passed on to other colleagues for final revision and checking, and was published in 1951.

That's the first decade ‘stretched on over’ into the next one, in its basic academic, religious, and social drives.

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*Originally published in E.F.K. Koerner (ed.), First Person Singular III: Autobiographies by North American scholars in the language sciences. Reprinted with permission.