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Kenneth L. Pike (1912–2000)

My Pilgrimage in Mission*

Kenneth L. Pike


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Formal Study of Linguistics

In the summer of 1937 Townsend had me go to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor to study linguistics with the famous Professor Edward Sapir, with whom he had had earlier contact. Sapir showed me how he had analyzed the tones of Navaho years before, by finding words, differing by pitch, that came in the same unchanging context, so that the contrast between them would show clearly. I returned to Mexico in the fall and during the year applied that technique to figure out the tones of Mixtec.

Later, the material grew into my book Tone Languages (1948). But Professor Fries, my mentor in Ann Arbor, pushed me to publish my dissertation (on phonetics, published in 1943), in which I attempted to describe all the sounds of all languages that I had read about or heard or was able to imagine. Then in 1942 he asked me to help show how to teach phonetics to students from abroad who were studying English at the English Language Institute. Some of them had difficulty with the pitch of "ordinary" English. So I applied what I had learned about tone languages to the pitch of English, publishing it as The Intonation of American English (1945).

Thus from 1935 to 1947 I not only worked with colleagues (including Donald Stark of the United States and Angel Merecias of the Mixtecs) to draft the translation of the New Testament into Mixtec (published in 1951) but moved into the phonetic component of linguistics, to help colleagues to work on translations into languages in other parts of the world. These translations were highly important to the locals, not only because they could help them to find God in Christ, but also because of factors unforeseen by me. Many of the locals had been told that they were "not people" because they had no alphabet. But after they had been given alphabets plus dictionaries plus books in their own languages, they would sometimes say, "Now we are people!" Self-identity and self-esteem grew from translations as did the linguistic understanding involved in getting the translations to them.

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*International Bulletin of Missionary Research, October 1997, used by permission.