LINGUIST List 20.78

Thu Jan 08 2009

All: Obituary: Isidore Dyen

Editor for this issue: Catherine Adams <>

        1.    Bernd Nothofer, Obituary: Isidore Dyen

Message 1: Obituary: Isidore Dyen
Date: 06-Jan-2009
From: Bernd Nothofer <>
Subject: Obituary: Isidore Dyen
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Obituary for Professor Isidore Dyen

Isidore Dyen, Professor Emeritus of Malayo-Polynesian and ComparativeLinguistics at Yale University, passed away on 14th December 2008 at theage of 95. He was one of the foremost scholars in the field of Austronesianlinguistics whose numerous publications have considerably contributed tothe advancement of our knowledge on the history of the Austronesianlanguage family and on the structure of some of its member languages.

Dyen began his academic career at the University of Pennsylvania where heobtained his PhD in Indo-European linguistics in 1939 with a dissertationentitled ‘The Sanskrit Indeclinables’. It was the Second World War whichcaused Dyen to extend his linguistic interests to Austronesian languages.After having moved to Yale University, he was exempted from US militaryservice on condition that he learn a Southeast Asian language and writetext books for soldiers. His choice of Malay for this project led him tocontact native speakers, most of them sailors, who were living illegally inNew York. After promising not to report them to the immigrationauthorities, he was able to study Malay with his informants and he soonachieved enough fluency to be able to teach the language to the troops.

After the war, this preoccupation with Malay persuaded him to chooseAustronesian linguistics as his new focus of linguistic studies.Nonetheless, he continued to bridge the academic distance between thesespecialties with his studies on both language families; for example, hewrote a lengthy essay tracing the origin of Malay tiga ‘three’ to Prakrittiga ‘triad’. He continued his work on the grammar of Malay and, duringvarious fieldwork trips to the Pacific (1947, 1949), he collected data onMicronesian languages such as Trukese and Yapese. Having first concentratedon the description of Austronesian languages, he soon began to carry outintensive research on the reconstruction of Proto-Austronesian and theclassification of Austronesian languages.

His first significant contributions to the reconstruction of Austronesianwere the revisions he proposed for Dempwolff’s reconstructions of PAnproto-phonemes (e.g. PAn *Z, *D, *R, laryngeals) and the rediscovery of theimportance of Formosan evidence for some new PAn phonemes. The numerousreconstructions he suggested for PAn proto-phonemes, distinguished only bysubscript numerals (e.g. *S1, S2, etc.), were challenged by somecolleagues, but he defended this method of reconstruction by arguing thatthese elements represented only tentative phonemes which later might beexplained 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 representproto-phonemes, since such an assumption would have led to an inflationaryPAn phonemic system.

Two of Dyen’s views triggered fierce disputes with other Austronesianists,namely the position of the Formosan languages in the Austronesian languagefamily and the validity of lexicostatistics as a means for theclassification of languages. Whereas Dyen held on to his view that theFormosan 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 theFormosan languages as a separate group, distinct from all remainingAustronesian languages that comprise a single group or branch of thefamily. As for lexicostatistics, Dyen was convinced that quantitativeevidence served as a solid method for classifying languages. His consistentreliance on this rather controversial methodology was demonstrated by thefact that his lexicostatistical classification of Austronesian languages,published in 1965, was followed by one of his last major publications, alexicostatistical classification of the Indo-European language family in1992. He produced the latter study despite the fact that many colleagueshad already straightforwardly rejected this method as a valid tool ofcomparative linguistics after the 1965 book. Nonetheless, he defended hisviews with all his energy and did not avoid open confrontations.

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

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

Linguistic Field(s): Not Applicable