A Gift for Words.

The indefatigable John Cowan sent me this link about a remarkable man:

Linguist Ken Hale had a preternatural ability to learn new languages. “It was as if the linguistic faculty which normally shuts off in human beings at the age of 12 just never shut off in him,” said his MIT colleague Samuel Jay Keyser.

“It’s more like a musical talent than anything else,” Hale told The New York Times in 1997. “When I found out I could speak Navajo at the age of 12, I used to go out every day and sit on a rock and talk Navajo to myself.” Acquiring new languages became a lifelong obsession […]

He estimated that he could learn the essentials of a new language in 10 or 15 minutes, well enough to make himself understood, if he could talk to a native speaker (he said he could never learn a language in a classroom). He would start with parts of the body, he said, then animals and common objects. Once he’d learned the nouns he could start to make sentences and master sounds, writing everything down.

He devoted much of his time to studying vanishing languages around the world. He labored to revitalize the language of the Wampanoag in New England and visited Nicaragua to train linguists in four indigenous languages. In 2001 his son Ezra delivered his eulogy in Warlpiri, an Australian aboriginal language that his father had raised his sons to speak. “The problem,” Ken once told Philip Khoury, “is that many of the languages I’ve learned are extinct, or close to extinction, and I have no one to speak them with.”

“Ken viewed languages as if they were works of art,” recalled another MIT colleague, Samuel Jay Keyser. “Every person who spoke a language was a curator of a masterpiece.”

Lucky him!

Comments

  1. David Eddyshaw says:

    “He estimated that he could learn the essentials of a new language in 10 or 15 minutes, well enough to make himself understood, if he could talk to a native speaker”

    I have to say this is thermodynamically impossible (even for Ken Hale), unless you interpret “essentials” in such a sense as to make it vacuously true.

  2. marie-lucie says:

    He is supposed to have learned French in three hours spent in a train compartment together with a group of Belgians. Of course, the degree of proficiency claimed by the word “learn” may not be very high, but he probably learned a number of useful phrases and some vocabulary essential to the occasion.

  3. David Marjanović says:

    When I found out I could speak Navajo at the age of 12

    …Lucky him indeed. And Warlpiri is no mean feat either.

  4. David Eddyshaw says:

    One wonders about a Robert Johnson-style bargain …

  5. Bathrobe says:

    Ken Hale was an important and well-known linguist. He has a Wikipedia page that gives a more complete account of his life and work. I found this rather interesting:

    Among his major contributions to linguistic theory was the hypothesis that certain languages were non-configurational, lacking the phrase structure characteristic of such languages as English. Non-configurational languages, according to Hale, display a set of properties that cluster together, including free word order, unpronounced pronouns and the ability to disperse semantically related words across a sentence.

    However, the Wikipedia article on non-configurational languages quickly disabused me of any expectations I might have had: The distinction (configurational vs. non-configurational) can exist in phrase structure grammars only. In a dependency-based grammar, the distinction is meaningless because dependency-based structures do not acknowledge a finite VP constituent.

    It only makes sense if you believe in boring old Chomsky.

  6. There’s a nice paper by Jeffrey Heath, “Syntactic and lexical aspects of nonconfigurationality in Nunggubuyu (Australia)” arguing that Hale was wrong about nonconfig.

    Nunggubuyu is like Warlpiri, but more so. Subjects can appear anywhere in the sentence, there is no priority of subjects over direct objects, and reciprocals and reflexives are intransitive. Some verbs are categorized by subject only, others by direct object only, in an unpredictable way: of the latter, the subject is sometimes invariant. “It will stop!” is a way of saying “Stop the car!”, where the car is inferred from the context only. What is more, there is nothing even resembling a NP: there are just nouns which have relationships, expressed or implied, with other nouns somewhere in the sentence. Even the definition of sentence/clause is problematic.

    So you can’t have S -> NP + VP when there is no NP and no VP, and the status of S is shaky.

  7. There are some great anecdotes about his language abilities; one of my favorites was about him spending a year in the Netherlands, and learning Dutch on the boat on the way over, so that he could lecture in Dutch. A Dutch linguist who attended the lectures remarked that they were sort of like listening to a twelve-year-old lecture about extremely sophisticated linguistic theory: perfect accent, perfect grammar, somewhat small vocabulary…

    And yes, he was also an important and influential linguist, who contributed a lot of ideas that we still use today, more than a decade after his death. Those of us who were lucky enough to know him still miss him a lot.

  8. SFReader says:

    Re: Warlpiri.

    Yapakawiyiwarnurnalumukupantirniyawu
    (yapa-people, -ka-pres.progressive, -wiyi-first, warnu-through, -rnalu – 1st pl, muku-thoroughly, panti-spear, -rni-non-past, -yawu-intensifier)
    We are most certainly thoroughly spearing the people through first.

    Now, you can proudly claim to have learned the essentials of Warlpiri in two minutes.

  9. David Eddyshaw says:

    “There’s a nice paper by Jeffrey Heath”

    Heath himself is no slouch when it comes to languages: he’s produced excellent grammars and dictionaries of Nunggubuyu, Tamashek, and a whole lot of Dogon and Songhay languages.

    Nunggubuyu is well up there with Navajo as a language where you wonder if the elders gather at night to think up new ways to make the language yet more impossible for foreigners. Tamashek is not quite in the same league, but trying pretty hard.

    Heath’s grammars of Timbuktu Songhay and Tamashek are between them a perfect refutation of the idea that all languages are at some level equally complex. It’s absolutely impossible to believe that anyone on the planet other than someone who already speaks a Berber language wouldn’t find Timbuktu Songhay vastly easier than Tamashek.

  10. David Marjanović says:

    Ah, but “easier” and “less complex” aren’t necessarily the same thing. How elaborate are the word-order rules of these two languages?

  11. The testimonial page created on Hale’s retirement, is full of anecdotes. One of them is in Latinized Yiddish, which I can figure out. Another is in some Berber language, which I can not (which language is it, Lameen?)

  12. January First-of-May says:

    Other languages featured on that page include Spanish, Irish, Navajo (I think), and even a bit of what appears from the context to be Wampanoag (and there are snippets in several other languages as well, including two lines in some language I couldn’t recognize just before the Irish).

  13. Chamorro (Chung’s specialty).

  14. I remember buying Donald M. Topping’s Chamorro Reference Grammar for a couple of bucks at a Yale Coop sale and looking at it in a taxi; the taxi driver said “You studying Chamorro? I was in Guam and I picked up a little!” What a world. (And no, I’ve never done anything with Chamorro; I’ve barely looked at the book since then. But it’s there if I want it!)

  15. David Eddyshaw says:

    Ah, but “easier” and “less complex” aren’t necessarily the same thing. How elaborate are the word-order rules of these two languages?

    Fair point; in fact Heath devotes a fair bit of the Koyra Chiini (Songhay) grammar to syntax, whereas the Tamashek one is very heavy on the morphology compared to the syntax, inevitably given the complexity of its morphology. I wouldn’t say that Koyra Chiini breaks any records for syntactic complexity by any means though. Morphologically, it’s a doddle, and phonologically too (hasn’t even got tones). Heath himself started out with the idea that it was originally a creolised version of Gao-type Songhay (and you can see why), but he discovered in the course of his researches that the situation was certainly too complicated for any simple notion of creolisation to account for the relationships among the various Malian Songhay languages.

  16. There must be many people able to learn new languages quickly, but they will likely never discover that fact.

    To actually know that you have this ability, and be also willing and able to discuss it is a very rare circumstance.

  17. David Marjanović says:

    There’s a nice paper by Jeffrey Heath, “Syntactic and lexical aspects of nonconfigurationality in Nunggubuyu (Australia)” arguing that Hale was wrong about nonconfig.

    I’ve finally finished reading it and warmly recommend it. Some of the features that are presented and contrasted with English are no stranger than German or Chinese; but many others are really surprising.

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