LINGUIST List 19.2101|
Tue Jul 01 2008
All: Obituary: Professor Rulon S. Wells III
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Obituary: Professor Rulon S. Wells III
Message 1: Obituary: Professor Rulon S. Wells III
From: Stephen Anderson <srayale.edu>
Subject: Obituary: Professor Rulon S. Wells III
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[The following obituary notice was prepared by Professor Stanley Insler, Dept.
of Linguistics, Yale University]
Rulon S. Wells III, Professor Emeritus of Linguistics and Philosophy at Yale
University, died on May 3, 2008 in Salt Lake City at the age of 90. He received
his BA from the University of Utah in 1939, his MA and PhD from Harvard
University in 1941 and 1942 respectively. Like many young linguists during WW
II, Wells was recruited by the Armed Services, first working for the Office of
Naval Research in 1942 and then for the Army Specialized Training Program in
1943-45. In the first position he produced a monograph on the matrix method in
linguistics; in the second, he taught Japanese and Bengali at the University of
Pennsylvania to future operatives in the war zones.
In 1945 Wells joined the Yale faculty in Philosophy and in due course was
appointed Professor of Linguistics and Philosophy in 1962. He actively taught at
the institution for over 44 years, offering courses in logic, philosophy of
language and symbolism, history of philosophy and linguistics and contemporary
philosophy. He was acknowledged as a formidable polymath by his colleagues at
Yale and he was always able to assist them in clearly formulating the parameters
of any problem they presented to him.
After his arrival at Yale, Wells emerged as one of the leading linguists of the
country, setting solid and critical standards for future linguistic research in
a series of seminal articles: 'The Pitch Phonemes of English' (Lg. 21, 1945),
'Immediate Constituents (Lg. 23, 1947), 'De Saussure's System of Linguistics'
(Word 3, 1947), 'Automatic Alternation' (Lg. 25, 1949), 'Meaning and Use' (Word
10, 1954), etc. All these studies are models of descriptive clarity, elegant
analysis and convincing results. In them one recognizes a sharp and critical
mind at work with tools well honed from Wells' interest in logic. For his unique
contributions to the field, Wells served as President of the Linguistic Society
of America in 1976.
Parallel to his researches in linguistics, Wells also wrote extensively on
logic, metaphysics, epistemology and semantics, the latter subject in his view
more closely allied with philosophical issues than with linguistic ones. The
mind of Charles S. Peirce held a special fascination for Wells, and Peirce's
ideas were explored in a number of studies during Wells' years of active
publication. In recognition of these, he became President of the Charles S.
Peirce Society in 1973.
Another important achievement of Wells' scholarly career is centered on the
Plato Microfilm Project. Begun in 1957 with his Philosophy colleague Robert S.
Brumbaugh, the goal of the project was to microfilm the 260 extant manuscripts
in Greek prior to 1600 that contain Plato's texts. Finally completed in 1990,
The Plato Microfilm Project now allows a researcher to compare variant readings
in critical passages of Plato where variants could produce (and often have
produced) an important difference in meaning.
Family members have mentioned that Wells enjoyed taking household objects apart,
driven by the curiosity to see how things were put together and how they worked.
This attitude or approach is emblematic of how Wells studied problems in
linguistics or philosophy. He disassembled the data, examined the relationships
of the components and proposed compelling explanations of how these
relationships in turn formed an interactive and functional structure.
Penetrating and inventive minds like his are rare, and those of us who have
known and worked with him, regret the passing of a great man.
A complete bibliography of the works of Wells up to 1985 can be found in a
Festschrift he received that year: Linguistics and Philosophy. Essays in honor
of Rulon S. Wells, Adam Makkai & Alan K. Melby (eds.), John Benjamins,
Linguistic Field(s): Not Applicable
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