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LINGUIST List 19.633

Mon Feb 25 2008

All: Obituary: M. Lionel Bender

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        1.    Grover Hudson, Obituary: M. Lionel Bender


Message 1: Obituary: M. Lionel Bender
Date: 24-Feb-2008
From: Grover Hudson <hudsonmsu.edu>
Subject: Obituary: M. Lionel Bender
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Marvin Lionel Bender, a prominent figure in Afroasiatic and Ethiopian 
linguistics for 50 years and whose works are among the authoritative
sources on Omotic and Nilo-Saharan linguistics, died on Tuesday, February
19, 2008 in Cape Girardeau, Missouri.

Born August 18, 1934 in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, he received Bachelor’s
and Master’s degrees from Dartmouth College in mathematics, in 1956 and
1958, and Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Texas at Austin, in
1968. His Ph.D. dissertation was a generative study of Amharic verb
morphology.

After M.A. studies, Bender taught mathematics in Ghana and then in
Ethiopia, at Haile Sellassie I University, where he became interested in
Amharic and then linguistics, and so returned to graduate school, at
Austin, where his dissertation was directed by Emmon Bach. After Ph.D.
studies Bender was immediately recruited to the research team of the
Language Survey of Ethiopia, a Ford Foundation project (part of the
five-nation Survey of Language Use and Language Teaching in East Africa),
the other members of which were J. Donald Bowen, Robert L. Cooper, and
Charles A. Ferguson. Bender was the only one with experience in Ethiopia
and knowledge of Amharic, the Ethiopian lingua franca. The survey report,
Language in Ethiopia, was published in 1976 (Oxford University Press),
including several chapters by Bender, some co-authored with Ethiopian
linguists. Words he wrote in the preface suggest the understanding about
research conclusions which was to characterize his many books and articles
in Ethiopian linguistics: ‘an attempt to summarize the state of the
art...and not a new source of orthodoxy’.

Over the years in the often contentious field of Ethiopian linguistics, in
which different national and scholarly traditions compete, his freely
expressed conclusions from research –especially concerning Omotic and
Nilo-Saharan classification, in which his work became foundational– were
frequently controversial, and just as often to be superceded by findings of
his later work. He was among the first to take up the hypothesis of Harold
Fleming about the status of Omotic as a separate branch of Afroasiatic, and
that of Robert Hetzron about the internal classification of Ethiopian
Semitic. Importantly, he succeeded in having both hypotheses accepted by
the survey team and written into Language in Ethiopia.

When the survey was finished, Bender was appointed to the research group in
Universals of Language at Stanford University, where he valued his
continuing relationship with Ferguson and, newly, with Joseph Greenberg. In
1971 he joined the Department of Anthropology at Southern Illinois
University (1971-2000), where he remained until retirement and for a time
served as Department Chair.

His early research was to explore, with Ethiopia as an example, Ferguson’s
idea of ‘language areas’, and Greenberg’s method of mass comparison as a
basis for genetic language classification and a way to bring empirical
process to bear in a little documented and diverse linguistic setting such
as Ethiopia, with some 75 languages in four families. As Greenberg’s
classification of African languages had brought order and rationality to
the broad field of African linguistics, Bender’s would similarly serve
Omotic and Nilo-Saharan. His early work also applied lexicostatistical
methods to Ethiopian languages, work which his mathematics background
prepared him for, but which sometimes enraged conservatives, who failed to
distinguish lexicostatistics and glottochronology, or failed to see that
his often original conclusions about Ethiopian-language relationships were
more a test of the method, and working hypotheses, rather than attempts to
establish ‘a new source of orthodoxy’.

He was the first to systematically sort through the many problems of
Ethiopian-language nomenclature, which had arisen from decades of research
in four European languages and competing use of ethnic-group names,
self-names, and Amharic names, and failure to distinguish dialect and
language, and he was the first to attempt a catalog of all the languages
and named dialects of Ethiopia, including a first attempt at a
comprehensive genetic classification: The Languages of Ethiopia
(Anthropological linguistics 13.5, 1971).

Turning to Omotic, Bender took to the field and began to fulfill the need
for descriptions of many of these divergent Afroasiatic varieties. His
thorough knowledge of prior work, ability to question informants in
Amharic, and the new data he acquired enabled him to provide the first
internal classification of this group, in his Omotic: a New Afroasiatic
Language Family (1975), and eventually his Comparative Morphology of the
Omotic Languages (2000), and Omotic Lexicon and Phonology (2003). He
obtained grants, including from the National Science Foundation, to study
Omotic, and Nilo-Saharan languages.

Soon he took up Nilo-Saharan, an extraordinarily diverse family, with often
poorly accessible members. In order to provide the Ethiopian academic
community, in and around Haile Sellassie I University (now Addis Ababa
University), with an affordable introduction to these largely ignored and
often despised peoples and their languages, he self-published, in Addis
Ababa, The Ethiopian Nilo-Saharans (1975). Bender authored the only
dictionaries on two of these languages: Gaam (1980) and Kunama (1996), and
edited six volumes of Nilo-Saharan papers. On a Fulbright-Hays fellowship,
he lectured at the University of Khartoum, Sudan. His latest book on this
family was The Nilo-Saharan Languages: a Comparative Essay (1996). He
valued his time in the Sudan, but loved Ethiopia, where he returned many
times. His Omotic and Nilo-Saharan works are a major contribution to the
preservation of endangered languages.

Co-edited with Gábor Takács and David Appleyard, his Afrasian: Selected
Comparative-Historical Afrasian Linguistic Studies in Memory of Igor M.
Diakonoff (2003), to which he contributed the ‘Afrasian overview’ and
another article ‘the Omotic lexicon’, is probably now the best introductory
source on Afroasiatic linguistics.

After retiring from Southern Illinois University, he continued to write and
publish with energy, despite failing health, and was completing a book on
Cushitic phonological and lexical reconstruction, about which he was
expected to present in March at the North American Conference on
Afroasiatic Linguistics (NACAL), a meeting which he rarely missed and twice
organized.

According to the obituary written for the Carbondale community, his ashes
will be scattered in Baja California, Mexico, where he and his sons often
vacationed in recent years, and perhaps an area which brought back for him
memories of fieldwork in the west Ethiopian countryside. Memorials may be
made to the Council for Secular Humanism, in Amherst, NY
(www.secularhumanism.org/).


Linguistic Field(s): Not Applicable



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