LINGUIST List 19.633

Mon Feb 25 2008

All: Obituary: M. Lionel Bender

Editor for this issue: Ann Sawyer <>

        1.    Grover Hudson, Obituary: M. Lionel Bender

Message 1: Obituary: M. Lionel Bender
Date: 24-Feb-2008
From: Grover Hudson <>
Subject: Obituary: M. Lionel Bender
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Marvin Lionel Bender, a prominent figure in Afroasiatic and Ethiopianlinguistics for 50 years and whose works are among the authoritativesources on Omotic and Nilo-Saharan linguistics, died on Tuesday, February19, 2008 in Cape Girardeau, Missouri.

Born August 18, 1934 in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, he received Bachelor’sand Master’s degrees from Dartmouth College in mathematics, in 1956 and1958, and Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Texas at Austin, in1968. His Ph.D. dissertation was a generative study of Amharic verbmorphology.

After M.A. studies, Bender taught mathematics in Ghana and then inEthiopia, at Haile Sellassie I University, where he became interested inAmharic and then linguistics, and so returned to graduate school, atAustin, where his dissertation was directed by Emmon Bach. After Ph.D.studies Bender was immediately recruited to the research team of theLanguage Survey of Ethiopia, a Ford Foundation project (part of thefive-nation Survey of Language Use and Language Teaching in East Africa),the other members of which were J. Donald Bowen, Robert L. Cooper, andCharles A. Ferguson. Bender was the only one with experience in Ethiopiaand 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 Ethiopianlinguists. Words he wrote in the preface suggest the understanding aboutresearch conclusions which was to characterize his many books and articlesin Ethiopian linguistics: ‘an attempt to summarize the state of theart...and not a new source of orthodoxy’.

Over the years in the often contentious field of Ethiopian linguistics, inwhich different national and scholarly traditions compete, his freelyexpressed conclusions from research –especially concerning Omotic andNilo-Saharan classification, in which his work became foundational– werefrequently controversial, and just as often to be superceded by findings ofhis later work. He was among the first to take up the hypothesis of HaroldFleming about the status of Omotic as a separate branch of Afroasiatic, andthat of Robert Hetzron about the internal classification of EthiopianSemitic. Importantly, he succeeded in having both hypotheses accepted bythe survey team and written into Language in Ethiopia.

When the survey was finished, Bender was appointed to the research group inUniversals of Language at Stanford University, where he valued hiscontinuing relationship with Ferguson and, newly, with Joseph Greenberg. In1971 he joined the Department of Anthropology at Southern IllinoisUniversity (1971-2000), where he remained until retirement and for a timeserved as Department Chair.

His early research was to explore, with Ethiopia as an example, Ferguson’sidea of ‘language areas’, and Greenberg’s method of mass comparison as abasis for genetic language classification and a way to bring empiricalprocess to bear in a little documented and diverse linguistic setting suchas Ethiopia, with some 75 languages in four families. As Greenberg’sclassification of African languages had brought order and rationality tothe broad field of African linguistics, Bender’s would similarly serveOmotic and Nilo-Saharan. His early work also applied lexicostatisticalmethods to Ethiopian languages, work which his mathematics backgroundprepared him for, but which sometimes enraged conservatives, who failed todistinguish lexicostatistics and glottochronology, or failed to see thathis often original conclusions about Ethiopian-language relationships weremore a test of the method, and working hypotheses, rather than attempts toestablish ‘a new source of orthodoxy’.

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

Turning to Omotic, Bender took to the field and began to fulfill the needfor descriptions of many of these divergent Afroasiatic varieties. Histhorough knowledge of prior work, ability to question informants inAmharic, and the new data he acquired enabled him to provide the firstinternal classification of this group, in his Omotic: a New AfroasiaticLanguage Family (1975), and eventually his Comparative Morphology of theOmotic Languages (2000), and Omotic Lexicon and Phonology (2003). Heobtained grants, including from the National Science Foundation, to studyOmotic, and Nilo-Saharan languages.

Soon he took up Nilo-Saharan, an extraordinarily diverse family, with oftenpoorly accessible members. In order to provide the Ethiopian academiccommunity, in and around Haile Sellassie I University (now Addis AbabaUniversity), with an affordable introduction to these largely ignored andoften despised peoples and their languages, he self-published, in AddisAbaba, The Ethiopian Nilo-Saharans (1975). Bender authored the onlydictionaries on two of these languages: Gaam (1980) and Kunama (1996), andedited six volumes of Nilo-Saharan papers. On a Fulbright-Hays fellowship,he lectured at the University of Khartoum, Sudan. His latest book on thisfamily was The Nilo-Saharan Languages: a Comparative Essay (1996). Hevalued his time in the Sudan, but loved Ethiopia, where he returned manytimes. His Omotic and Nilo-Saharan works are a major contribution to thepreservation of endangered languages.

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

After retiring from Southern Illinois University, he continued to write andpublish with energy, despite failing health, and was completing a book onCushitic phonological and lexical reconstruction, about which he wasexpected to present in March at the North American Conference onAfroasiatic Linguistics (NACAL), a meeting which he rarely missed and twiceorganized.

According to the obituary written for the Carbondale community, his asheswill be scattered in Baja California, Mexico, where he and his sons oftenvacationed in recent years, and perhaps an area which brought back for himmemories of fieldwork in the west Ethiopian countryside. Memorials may bemade to the Council for Secular Humanism, in Amherst, NY(

Linguistic Field(s): Not Applicable