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Kenneth L. Pike (1912–2000)

A Linguistic Pilgrimage*

Kenneth L. Pike

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3. From then (1945) to now (1993):
Travels, consulting, teaching, and a variety of other foci of interests

3.1 Grammar and Anthropology

In 1948 the University of Michigan brought me to their faculty as an associate professor. I considered writing a book on voice quality, but I was tired of phonetics, and decided to turn to the study of grammar. Yet I did not want to ‘throw away’ the past; I wished rather to ‘build upon it’. So I asked myself what there might be in my prior phonemic experience which I could carry over to grammar. I went through my phonemics textbook, and decided that there were three items which I wanted to retain; (1) contrastive-identificational features, (2) manifesting variants, and (3) distribution of units (appropriateness of occurrence). This seemed to work fine in separating, for example, a subject from a predicate, or a subject-as-actor from a subject-as-undergoer. Through these assumptions I could find words, clauses, or poems. But a question remained: How did a language, as a whole, fit these features? English was in contrast with German; it had variations from Boston to Texas; but what was it distributed into? Not into English itself; not into another language; but into behaviour, into culture! This represented a major breakthrough in the spring of 1949, and led to much of my focus for the next decade. Professor Fries had me lecture on it to his seminar; and then urged me to write about it in the form of a book, not just an article. He got a philosopher (Abraham Kaplan) to encourage me, and a foundation grant (Rockefeller) to support me for a year.

In 1950, Evelyn and I went to Australia to start an SIL summer school there. I had to teach grammar, and I wanted to use these new insights. Evelyn, as usual, helped me with the applied material. She made up several artificial problems (see my Language… 1967[1954], section 7.313[4] for problems ‘A’ through ‘C’). These reflected our earlier procedures for phonemics (which had artificial problems in ‘Kalaba’). We tried an artificial interaction experiment with our second daughter. We had noticed that, earlier, our older daughter in trying to identify an object, would point at it and try to name it while using a rising intonation. But the reply, to be normal, should have been falling in pitch. She was, in fact, mimicking our own speech which we used when we asked her if she could name the object. Therefore, for our second child, we decided to distort our question by using a declarative intonation, hoping that by mimicking us she would learn an appropriate intonation to identify objects. (We were the only English speakers in a small village in Mexico, so ours was the only English our daughter heard.) It worked! (See Evelyn Pike 1949.) The child’s first words used an adult intonation for naming or calling rather than the normal baby expectancy of rising pitch to mean “Can you say ‘X’”. We then had to leave her with friends for a few days. The friends were not trained in intonation, and we had made no attempt to instruct them how to carry on the experiment. When we came back, the child’s typical question (rising) intonation had replaced the ‘adult’ (falling) intonation!

And the move from language as a whole into language as part of culture forced me to look at football games, church services, and other components of social system.

3.2 Emics, linguistics, and anthropology

But culture had to be viewed in relation to the people who utilized their units within that culture. What was crucial to them? What kind of ‘native reaction’ made one item relevant and another one not noticed? These items forced us to look at the analogue of ‘phonemics’ in anthropology, and we needed to build on our experience with phonemic analysis. So I took the word phonemic, crossed out the phon- part meaning “sound”, and generalized my use of the new emic term to represent any unit of culture, at any level, of any kind, which was reacted to as a relevant unit by the native actors in that behavior. In the same way, I created the word etic from phonetic. These terms became crucial terms in the first volume of my Language in Relation to a Unified Theory… (1954).

I have a vague feeling that, twenty years from now, these terms are as likely to be retained as a residue from our tagmemic theory as anything else. (Stewart Hussey searched the past literature from 1966 to 1989, and found 278 items using the terms etics or emics;—see Headland et al. [1990:17], and compare, ibid., p. 19.) In general, it has been publications in the social sciences, rather than those in linguistics as such, that have made these direct or indirect references. (The book referred to in effect represented a public dialogue between Marvin Harris, the country’s leading social materialist, and Pike, a theist and linguist. Harris emphasized diachronic cultural sources to understand historical change; Pike emphasized more synchronic native reaction. Discussions included comments by anthropologists, philosophers, and psychologists to show how these terms had been used in related disciplines.)

3.3 Consulting

Much of my work during the next three decades was spent traveling a semester or so each year to help beginning colleagues of the Summer Institute of Linguistics who were having difficulty in analysis. Because the underlying principles of tagmemics (including phonemic approach, grammatical analysis, and anthropological structure) reflected the presence of variations from absolute universals, I was prepared to go to any language, in any country where a language had not been analyzed or written down, and help colleagues with the initial stages of the analysis, for a time span anywhere from two weeks to four months. In the process, I have probably consulted on from 100 to 200 languages in Mexico, Guatemala, Peru, Colombia, Chile, Brazil, Togo, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Sudan, Kenya, Indonesia (including Irian Jaya), Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Nepal, India, Australia. It was the procedural methodology growing out of the emic and etic principles, which was helpful in my approach to unanalyzed data. Frank Robbins, in the “Foreword” to the 1992 Bibliography of the SIL, points out that by 1992 SIL had been involved with 1,225 languages, with 1,300 technical monographs, plus 144 published doctoral dissertations, 5,000 article-length publications, 335 published New Testament translations, and other materials. I have been involved in some of the initial approach to linguistic analysis in a number of those languages.

But another conclusion grows out of this experience. In my view, many young scholars choose their topics from the excitement shown by a senior professor or by the state of the art at that time. My attention often came from a very different source—from finding people in trouble and working with them. As a result, my topics were very wide-ranging, since field problems are many in kind and may not be determined by the current state of the discipline. It is for this reason that my bibliography shows a variety of materials—e.g., on mathematics, rhetoric, kinesics, science fiction, linguistic analysis of poetry, or on the relation between linguistics, science, philosophy, and religion. (I will not attempt to list my materials here. They can be checked in the 1987 bibliography compiled by Ruth Brend, or in a slightly earlier version in 1981 in a biography written about me by my sister, Eunice V. Pike.)

3.4 People above logic

And all this time I have been interested in people—not just in linguistics or anthropology or translation. I kept meeting native people who were told by nationals that the natives were not people—because “they did not have an alphabet or a dictionary”. The natives were therefore often ashamed of themselves, and did not feel that they belonged ‘normally’ to the ‘larger community’. When, however, we succeeded in getting them an alphabet, dictionary, and a start toward learning to read, their whole view of themselves and of their culture could change.

On the other hand, we would meet people whose religion told them (for example) that their gods gave them fish in the rivers. But if greedy ‘outsiders’ came in and used dynamite to catch a few fish, in the process destroying the baby fish, these people could be threatened with hunger—and have enormous difficulty with their religious happiness. In this case, for those who chose to be interested, bits from the New Testament would tell them that there was still Someone who was interested in them and loved them and wanted to help them—and their self-esteem could be rebuilt on a new and solid foundation.

I was in one country in South America when a couple dozen young anthropology students wanted me to meet at one of their homes—since the university had refused to let me lecture there, because of objection (I was told) from some anthropologists. One of the young anthropologists started by saying “You are changing culture!!” (Implying an attack on my work.) I said, “You are an anthropologist. Suppose you now go to the jungle, to study. But you take along some pills in case you get malaria. And you see a little girlie who is dying of malaria. You know that your pills would save her life. Would you, or would you not, give her your pills to save her life?” The young student thought for awhile and then said, “I would”. To which I replied, “You are changing culture. That child will grow, have babies, and you may have a population explosion that you will have to do something about.”

The problem of the relation of language to self, to esteem, to religion, and to scientific research, is enormously complex. None of us have a final answer which is satisfactory to everyone else. We have to do what we can. That is what I have been trying to do.

Perhaps I can capture a bit of this feeling to show that some of one’s presuppositions, one’s commitments, and one’s actions, grow out of one’s feeling about the relation of people to the world. Note the following poem I wrote for this purpose.


Logic stretches thought
Along linear paths of logic
To wander in woods of life
Where thought trees shade grounds of faith.

Breezes from minds blow leaves
To scatter, unrooted there—
Feeding further forest
Where other thoughts my root.

Persons build the ground
Of thoughts unthought by them—
Melted and moulded
In oven of brain through words.

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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.