Ken Hale was a great linguist
, and a great linguist. Most of us linguists (students of the science of linguistics
) are baffled and frustrated by being mistaken for linguists (polyglot
s, people who speak a lot of languages). You don't need fluency
in languages to study them: you don't need to be like a native speaker
. We dread the question "How many languages do you speak?". To me it doesn't even make any sense.
But Kenneth Locke Hale was a towering figure in linguistics, and was also an amazing polyglot. He was not only good at picking up languages, he was legendary among linguists. He was said to speak more than fifty languages. Ordinarily, this sort of claim would be regarded as nonsensical. No-one can speak more than about ten: people who can speak twenty are freaks of nature whose brain you want to study. Just being an expert on linguistics doesn't enable you to hold ten or twenty distinct languages in your brain. So fifty? But Ken Hale did. He was a freak of nature.
The principal importance of his work was in empowering endangered languages, and training native speakers to be linguists, and conveying the importance of field work. He worked with the Navajo and Hopi and his students from those tribes got Ph.D.s in linguistics. He went to Australia and became an expert on Warlpiri. This is one of the world's very few non-configurational languages (and it would hurt my brain this time of night to try to explain that, but it's an extreme of grammar where word order is almost irrelevant), along with Mohawk and possibly modern colloquial French. He also became expert on several native languages of Nicaragua, and trained natives there to become linguists.
His expert study of Warlpiri gives us some handle on what the brain is doing when it processes language. Hale's work gives us deep insights into universals of language typology: what are all the possible ways a language can arrange its grammar, what do they have in common, what is different between them?
He had children. His kids grew up native speakers of Warlpiri. They didn't realize that at the time, of course; they were just kids. But they absorbed this alien and difficult language like mother's milk, because they were kids, and he absorbed it because he was Ken Hale. Back in America they spoke it among themselves. One day one of his Australian students, a native Warlpiri, showed up, and Ken greeted him at the airport. His son was staggered: he had been so young when he'd learnt the language he'd forgotten there were other people who knew it. Then here was this black-skinned stranger coming off an aeroplane speaking his dad's private language! In later years Hale's son would act as his assistant in the classroom, and they would communicate instructions about the overhead projector in Warlpiri. He documented about seventy Australian Aboriginal languages. In an outback pub, talking with the local Aborigines, he could switch from Warlpiri to Arrernte, Kaitish, Warramunga or Loritja.
Use of a language was a courtesy for him. One time he needed to go to Ireland, so he went to the Irish consulate to get a visa. As a courtesy he conducted the conversation in Irish. After a few minutes the Irish clerk asked if they could switch to English, as she wasn't good enough at Irish to keep up with him. If he was going to a foreign country for a conference he would, almost literally, pick up a teach yourself book at the airport and learn the local language on the plane, and be making jokes with people the day he arrived there, and pretty soon would be lecturing in the language, and picking out mistakes in books by native speakers. Other linguists would swap Ken Hale anecdotes in amazement.
Born in Chicago on 15 August 1934, he moved to an Arizona ranch at the age of six. Here he was exposed to Hopi, Jemez, and Tohono O'odham, and learnt them quickly. In school he went through all the available Arizona languages, and branched out into others. His first degree was a B.A. in anthropology from Arizona, in 1955, followed by an M.A. then a Ph.D. in linguistics from Bloomington. On receiving his doctorate in 1958 he went to Australia, and studied there in the field till 1961, returning several times after.
He moved departments from Arizona to MIT in 1967; retired from MIT in 1999; and died on 8 October 2001. The Linguistic Society of America is endowing a Ken Hale Chair for the study of endangered languages. He sounds like one of the most inspiring of teachers.
Tributes on his retirement: http://web.mit.edu/linguistics/www/ken/posted/posted.html
MIT obituary: http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2001/hale.html
Anecdotes from Professor Moira Yip of UCL