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LINGUIST List 21.294

Sun Jan 17 2010

All: Obituary: Samuel E. Martin

Editor for this issue: Catherine Adams <catherinlinguistlist.org>

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        1.    Stephen Anderson, Obituary: Samuel E. Martin

Message 1: Obituary: Samuel E. Martin
Date: 15-Jan-2010
From: Stephen Anderson <srayale.edu>
Subject: Obituary: Samuel E. Martin
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As promised in LINGUIST List Vol-20-4125, here is a fuller appreciation of the life and
career of the late Samuel E. Martin. This obituary has been prepared by a former student of
his, Prof. Robert Ramsey, Professor of East Asian Linguistics at the University of

Samuel E. Martin, Professor Emeritus of Linguistics at Yale University, died on November
28, 2009, in Vancouver, Washington, at the age of 85. Martin received his A.B. with honors
in Oriental Languages from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1947; his M.A. in
Oriental Languages from Berkeley in 1949; and his Ph.D. in Linguistics from Yale
University in 1950. Like so many of America’s Japanologists in the post-war period, Martin
had worked as a Japanese Language Officer during World War II, and after the war, he
studied Chinese linguistics with Yuen Ren Chao at Berkeley, and Japanese linguistics with
Bernard Bloch at Yale. The dissertation he wrote on Japanese morphophonemics for his
Ph.D. at Yale was judged outstanding enough to be published as a monograph the following
year in the Linguistic Society of America’s dissertation series.

Martin’s talent for linguistic analysis had by this time drawn considerable attention. In that
structuralist era, Yale was considered by many to be the premier institution in the United
States for the study of linguistic science, and upon completion of his Ph.D. in 1950, Martin
joined Yale’s illustrious faculty and moved smoothly up the academic ladder, becoming
Professor of Far Eastern Linguistics in 1962.

Martin was already recognized internationally as an authority on Korean as well as on
Japanese. In 1951, he published his seminal article in Language on Korean phonemics; in
1952, in addition to his dissertation, he published a monograph on Japanese orthography, a
monograph on Japanese speech styles, and a Korean reader; in 1954 he produced what was
then the definitive monograph on Korean morphophonemics. It was also during this early
period of his career, when Martin was only 30 years old, that the President of South Korea,
Syngman Rhee, brought Martin to his office for consultation on orthographic reform.
Korean is a notoriously difficult language to Romanize, but what is not so well known is
that spellings and word divisions in the Korean alphabet, Hankul, are equally problematic.
Rhee turned to Martin, an outsider, for help with these complex problems, and Martin’s
findings and recommendations were published in 1954 in leading Korean dailies in both
Korean and English.

Martin also worked extensively on the problems with how languages are Romanized. In the
same era in which he advised President Rhee on Korean orthography, Martin devised a
Romanization system for Korean, which he modestly titled “Yale Romanization”. The
approach to writing seen in that system, as well as in other systems he devised, was based
upon simple and practical principles. First, Yale Romanization maximizes the transparency
of Korean phonological and morphological structure; for example, word spacing is used
liberally to show junctures. And although Hankul spellings are in most cases transferred
easily into Yale Romanization, Yale transcriptions reflect a few phonemic distinctions
ignored in Hankul. Martin recommended that such distinctions be reflected in Hankul
spellings as well (that they were not can be attributed more to political than to linguistic
considerations). Practicality was equally important to Martin, and in devising Yale
Romanization he made certain that it could be typed on a QWERTY keyboard without the
need for diacritics, something that was not true of the widely used McCune-Reischauer
system. And so, because of its structural transparency, and because it is so easily typed, Yale
soon became the Korean Romanization preferred by most linguists in Korea as well as in the

Martin’s research and publications in this early period were wide-ranging. In 1953, he
published a monograph on the phonemes of Ancient Chinese, and he followed that work up
in 1957 with an article on Mandarin phonology that is still viewed as a landmark of
structuralist methodology. In 1961 he published the results of an extensive research project
on Dagur Mongolian; the Dagur monograph, which contains a grammatical analysis and a
lexicon together with texts, is still the most comprehensive source of information about that
variety of Mongolian. Working with native speakers of yet another language, he found time
for a research project on a little-known variety of Ryukyuan, the findings of which he wrote
up in a 40-page article published in 1970 called “Shodon: a dialect of the northern
Ryukyus”. Martin wrote on Japanese and Korean linguistics of course, but he also wrote
reviews and articles on Semitic, Thai, Uralic, and structuralist theory; he wrote an
encyclopedia article on Japanese literature and a review of Donald Keene’s anthology of
Japanese literature; he compiled Korean and Japanese textbooks, readers, and dictionaries; he
coauthored a Chinese character dictionary. The Manual of Japanese writing, which he co-
authored with Hamako Ito Chaplin, is full of not only good pedagogical sense but also
insightful ideas about juncture, pauses, and pitch accent in modern standard Japanese.

Some of Martin’s most influential articles were written in the 1960s. The most famous one
is undoubtedly his 1966 Language article “Lexical evidence relating Korean to Japanese”, a
work that has formed the basis for historical comparisons ever since. The two languages had
often been compared before that, but Martin’s article represented by far the most systematic
and professional application of the comparative method to Korean and Japanese. It changed
the suggestion that the two languages are genetically related into a serious hypothesis. But
there were other gems that, although less heralded, have been almost equally influential.
For example, his 1962 article on sound symbolism in Korean explored a rich avenue of
research that has since attracted considerable attention among phonologists; his 1964 article,
“Speech styles in Japan and Korea”, has also been included in many bibliographies and on
many reading lists. These were subject matters Martin examined with more professionalism
than almost anyone before him.

Through the ascendant years of transformational grammar, Martin’s research deepened. He
had always been concerned more about facts and data than theory, and as his files and
databases grew, he organized his findings and data into volumes that have had an enduring
usefulness. In those volumes, he was thoroughly eclectic, taking ideas and analyses from all
sources (including all branches of TG) and using whatever gave the most reasonable and
elegant explanation for the facts. The facts were often untidy, and most explanations,
however elegant, left loose ends; Martin always included those exceptions in his narrative so
that anyone with a better explanation would be free to use them.

Perhaps Martin’s greatest work remains his matchless Reference grammar of Japanese,
published by Yale Press in 1975 and more recently reissued by Hawaii University Press. In
1977, in his plenary address at the Linguistic Society of America’s Summer Institute in
Honolulu, Susumu Kuno judged that: “In another decade, there will only be three works on
Japanese grammar from our time that anyone will remember ... and those are: Jorden’s and
Alfonso’s textbooks, and Martin’s Reference grammar of Japanese.” As it turned out,
Kuno’s prediction was not too far from the mark. Martin’s book remains today the best
source of information there is about Japanese grammar, and it does not look like it will be
replaced by anything in the foreseeable future.

The Japanese language through time, published in 1987, represents the continuation and
culmination of this Japanese research. Most of the volume consists of etymological lexicons
and lists of forms and bibliographic references indispensable to historical research on the

Beginning in the 1950s, Martin also maintained extensive files on Korean grammar and
language history. While completing his grammar of Japanese, Martin’s grammar of Korean
remained in draft form; by the time A reference grammar of Korean was ready for
publication in 1992, it had been transformed largely into a historical reference to reflect
Martin’s research of more recent decades. Some of the same files used for the grammar
formed much of the foundation of his Korean-English dictionary; that dictionary, first
published by Yale Press in 1968, was picked up later by a succession of Korean publishers.
The dictionary is still a basic reference work, distinguished by the accuracy and idiomaticity
of its English glosses and translations, and by the inclusion of etymologies for native words
when known.

Sometime in the 1980s, Martin began full-time research on Middle Korean. This body of
alphabetic texts from the 15th and 16th centuries contains some of the best pre-modern
records of any language in the world, but it is also filled with innumerable linguistic
puzzles. Martin immediately set about analyzing and cataloging the data in this extensive
corpus by reading and examining the texts one by one. In addition, however, he now
employed technological tools not available to him in his earlier works. From his good friend
and colleague the anthropologist Harold Conklin, Martin got his hands on software for
managing and retrieving data and began recording data in this new format. In the decades
that followed, he methodically read through most of the important Middle Korean texts,
screening each passage for structures and examples to add to his database.

The importance and usefulness of the Middle Korean corpus can be seen in his 1992
reference grammar of Korean, especially the 500-page grammatical lexicon that forms Part
2 of the work. Each Middle Korean example contained in the lexicon is transcribed in
Romanization with all the phonological information, including pitches, found in the original
text, and it is translated into idiomatic English. This kind of information cannot be found
anywhere else. The Middle Korean database is also the resource upon which Martin’s 1996
monograph Consonant lenition in Korean and the Macro-Altaic question primarily draws its
information. The size of this little volume (163 pages) belies its importance. It is not a
summary of received wisdom, nor is it a restatement of his earlier work; in it, Martin offers
new suggestions about earlier Korean. Moreover, the interested reader should not skip
reading the endnotes; that section is almost as long as the basic text, and it is just as

Sam Martin retired from teaching in 1994 and moved to a new home in the state of
Washington, near British Columbia, where his wife Nancy had grown up. The new home
was even closer to the Portland, Oregon campus where his daughter Norah teaches
philosophy and is now an associate dean. (Son James, a mechanical engineer at Georgia
Tech, lives far away, in Atlanta.) Freed from teaching and administrative responsibilities,
Martin immersed himself even more deeply in his research, especially the cataloging of
Middle Korean forms. In the decade and a half after retirement, Martin formed and
articulated a variety of new ideas, some of which ran counter to received wisdom, and some
were even in conflict with positions he himself had taken earlier. What was unfailingly
consistent, though, was that no matter what position he took on any issue, the data,
including exceptions, were always laid out for the reader in their entirety.

In 1994, Martin was presented the Presidential Medal of Honor by the Republic of Korea,
and at the ceremony, I was asked to speak on behalf of his students. I chose to read
something Mr. Martin himself had written in the introduction to his reference grammar of
Korean, which at the time had just been published:

“This book is not trying to prove a theory about the nature of language. I do not maintain
that the structure of a language is either discoverable or describable in one and only one
“correct”, or even uniquely “best” way. The criteria for judging a description vary with the
purpose for which it is intended. For a reference grammar the most important criterion is
balanced completeness. As much useful information as possible must be given in a form that
makes it readily accessible to the user. The information that is most often, or most sorely,
needed should be the easiest to get at. Lists are not to be scorned; formulas are not to be
worshipped. Economy of statement is a technical criterion relevant to the accessibility of the
information; elegance of statement is a psychological criterion relevant to the impact of the
information.” (p.3)

To me, this statement articulates best the philosophy with which Martin practiced linguistics.
The perspective he brought to the discipline, the emphasis he placed on usefulness, and the
distance he maintained from the pretense of theory - these are the earmarks of a linguistics
more subtle and lasting than that practiced only in the pursuit of universals. Martin’s
linguistics is the kind of scholarship appreciated by those who understand and value the
study of language.

A reasonably complete bibliography of Martin’s works can be found on pp. 267-72 of a
Festschrift volume, “In Honor of Samuel E. Martin”, of Japanese Language and Literature,
Volume 38, Number 2, October 2004.

- Robert Ramsey

Linguistic Field(s): Not Applicable

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