LINGUIST List 19.2101

Tue Jul 01 2008

All: Obituary: Professor Rulon S. Wells III

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        1.    Stephen Anderson, Obituary: Professor Rulon S. Wells III

Message 1: Obituary: Professor Rulon S. Wells III
Date: 01-Jul-2008
From: Stephen Anderson <>
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, Amsterdam/Philadelphia, 1985.

Linguistic Field(s): Not Applicable