Linguist Kenneth Hale, 67, helped revive Wampanoag language
LOS ANGELES TIMES
LEXINGTON Kenneth L. Hale, a linguist whose devotion to preserving native
cultures and understanding the commonalities in human speech led to a
legendary prowess with languages, including many that are now extinct, has
He was 67 and died of prostate cancer Oct. 8 at his home in Lexington,
according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he taught for
Hale was a highly respected theoretician whose work on word order
structures contributed to a general theory of the innate human capacity for
speech. He also championed the study of American Indian and other
endangered tongues by members of the affected cultures.
"He was . . . one of those very few people who truly merits the term 'a
voice for the voiceless,' " said MIT language theorist and social critic
Noam Chomsky, who called Hale "one of the world's leading scholars."
A legendary polyglot, Hale could converse in more than 50 languages,
including Navajo, Hopi and the Australian aboriginal tongue of Warlpiri.
One of his last projects was helping the Wampanoag revive their language,
Wopanaak, which had not been spoken in seven generations. It is now used by
many of the 3,000 remaining Wampanoag on Cape Cod and Martha's Vineyard.
Jessie "Little Doe" Fermino, an Algonqian linguist and co-chairwoman of the
Wopanaak Language Reclamation Project in Mashpee, studied under Hale as a
graduate student in 1996.
"He was one of the most incredible human beings I've ever known,"
"I first met him in 1995 when I received a MIT fellowship. He convinced me
to apply to graduate school there."
Hale opened up his home to Fermino, a Mashpee resident, allowing her to
stay in a room at his and his wife's home so Fermino wouldn't have to make
such a long commute to early morning classes from the Cape.
"He was my mentor. He felt that indigenous people were the true experts on
Fermino said Hale was an integral part of Wampanoag language prophesies.
"One of the prophesies talks about the language leaving our people and it
talks about a time when the language will return to the people a time
when the descendants of those who had a hand in breaking the circle, will
have a hand in closing that circle again," she said.
When Hale was 15, he enrolled in Verde Valley School, a multicultural,
college-preparatory school in Sedona, Ariz. Assigned a Hopi roommate, he
decided to learn some Hopi. Rooming next with a boy who spoke Jemez,
another American Indian language, he not only learned some Jemez but
devised a written form of it.
He explored O'odham, Cherokee, Navajo and other American Indian
He had one other passion: He rode bulls. A proud possession was a trophy
belt buckle he won at a rodeo sponsored by the University of Arizona, where
he earned a bachelor's degree in anthropology in 1955.
He went on to Indiana University at Bloomington for his master's and
doctorate in linguistics and then spent three years surveying Australian
aboriginal languages on a National Science Foundation grant.
He taught at the University of Illinois-Urbana and the University of
Arizona before joining MIT in 1967.
Hale once said that every language represented "intellectual wealth,"
he traveled to the ends of the world to find it."When you lose a language,"
he told an interviewer, "it's like dropping a bomb on a museum."
His focus in his last years was on reviving extinct languages, in
"A lot of linguists feel it is not really possible for tribes to
unspoken language. Luckily, Ken was not one of those people," said Fermino.
When Hale's friends and family gather at MIT next month, the memorial
remarks will be in Hopi, Navajo, Warlpiri and Wampanoag.
Cape Cod Times staff writer Sean Gonsalves contributed to this story.