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LINGUIST List 20.78

Thu Jan 08 2009

All: Obituary: Isidore Dyen

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        1.    Bernd Nothofer, Obituary: Isidore Dyen


Message 1: Obituary: Isidore Dyen
Date: 06-Jan-2009
From: Bernd Nothofer <bernd.nothofert-online.de>
Subject: Obituary: Isidore Dyen
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Obituary for Professor Isidore Dyen

Isidore Dyen, Professor Emeritus of Malayo-Polynesian and Comparative
Linguistics at Yale University, passed away on 14th December 2008 at the
age of 95. He was one of the foremost scholars in the field of Austronesian
linguistics whose numerous publications have considerably contributed to
the advancement of our knowledge on the history of the Austronesian
language family and on the structure of some of its member languages.

Dyen began his academic career at the University of Pennsylvania where he
obtained his PhD in Indo-European linguistics in 1939 with a dissertation
entitled ‘The Sanskrit Indeclinables’. It was the Second World War which
caused Dyen to extend his linguistic interests to Austronesian languages.
After having moved to Yale University, he was exempted from US military
service on condition that he learn a Southeast Asian language and write
text books for soldiers. His choice of Malay for this project led him to
contact native speakers, most of them sailors, who were living illegally in
New York. After promising not to report them to the immigration
authorities, he was able to study Malay with his informants and he soon
achieved enough fluency to be able to teach the language to the troops.

After the war, this preoccupation with Malay persuaded him to choose
Austronesian linguistics as his new focus of linguistic studies.
Nonetheless, he continued to bridge the academic distance between these
specialties with his studies on both language families; for example, he
wrote a lengthy essay tracing the origin of Malay tiga ‘three’ to Prakrit
tiga ‘triad’. He continued his work on the grammar of Malay and, during
various fieldwork trips to the Pacific (1947, 1949), he collected data on
Micronesian languages such as Trukese and Yapese. Having first concentrated
on the description of Austronesian languages, he soon began to carry out
intensive research on the reconstruction of Proto-Austronesian and the
classification of Austronesian languages.

His first significant contributions to the reconstruction of Austronesian
were the revisions he proposed for Dempwolff’s reconstructions of PAn
proto-phonemes (e.g. PAn *Z, *D, *R, laryngeals) and the rediscovery of the
importance of Formosan evidence for some new PAn phonemes. The numerous
reconstructions he suggested for PAn proto-phonemes, distinguished only by
subscript numerals (e.g. *S1, S2, etc.), were challenged by some
colleagues, but he defended this method of reconstruction by arguing that
these elements represented only tentative phonemes which later might be
explained as cases of undetected borrowing or the results of other factors.
His main purpose was to provide a complete inventory of correspondences,
even though he knew that not all these subscript phonemes could represent
proto-phonemes, since such an assumption would have led to an inflationary
PAn phonemic system.

Two of Dyen’s views triggered fierce disputes with other Austronesianists,
namely the position of the Formosan languages in the Austronesian language
family and the validity of lexicostatistics as a means for the
classification of languages. Whereas Dyen held on to his view that the
Formosan languages belong with the western languages in a group he called
‘Hesperonesian’, with the Philippine languages as their closest relative,
most other scholars now adhere to the Formosan hypothesis which regards the
Formosan languages as a separate group, distinct from all remaining
Austronesian languages that comprise a single group or branch of the
family. As for lexicostatistics, Dyen was convinced that quantitative
evidence served as a solid method for classifying languages. His consistent
reliance on this rather controversial methodology was demonstrated by the
fact that his lexicostatistical classification of Austronesian languages,
published in 1965, was followed by one of his last major publications, a
lexicostatistical classification of the Indo-European language family in
1992. He produced the latter study despite the fact that many colleagues
had already straightforwardly rejected this method as a valid tool of
comparative linguistics after the 1965 book. Nonetheless, he defended his
views with all his energy and did not avoid open confrontations.

The appreciation of Dyen’s stimulating scholarship was acknowledged by the
Austronesian community, when the festschrift I edited in his honor was
published. Many colleagues contributed to that volume, which Byron Bender
presented to him during an Austronesian Circle meeting at the University of
Hawai’i in 1996. Upon receiving the book, he simply asked ‘What is this
for?’ -- with his typical penchant for dry understatement.

Dyen was not only an active researcher, but also a productive advisor who
could be very thorough and rough in individual discussions with his
doctoral candidates sitting across from him at his office desk, always
stacked with books, notes, papers and file cards. Seven graduate students
went through this schooling and became successful scholars, most of them in
the field of Austronesian linguistics: Alan Stevens, W. Keith Percival,
John U. Wolff, Paul D. Black, Shigeru Tsuchida, Curtis D. McFarland, and
myself. Let me close by citing one of the phrases he kept on using when his
students put forth hypotheses which he regarded as shaky: ‘You know…,
anything is possible!’.

Linguistic Field(s): Not Applicable

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