March 01, 2007

A tale of two societies

Looking for some information on Thai "elaborate words", I stumbled over the obituary for Mary Haas in Language (Victor Golla and James A. Matisoff, "Mary R. Haas", Language, Vol. 73, No. 4. (Dec., 1997), pp. 826-837). The opening sentence frames her life nicely:

Mary Haas, one of Edward Sapir's last surviving students, the guiding spirit of linguistics at the University of California, Berkley, for nearly three decades, and the thirty-ninth president of the Linguistic Society of America (1963), died at her home in Berkeley on May 17, 1996.

She began as an anthropological linguist in the mode of the 1930s:

... she soon found herself caught up in the exciting company of Sapir's graduate students in anthropology and linguistics, most of whom were already doing serious work on American Indian languages. Prominent in this cohort were Harry Hoijier, Stanley Newman, Walter Dyk, and Morris Swadesh, the last a brilliant and charming young Chicagoan, only a year older than Haas, with whom she fell in love. They were married in the spring of 1931, and spent their honeymoon on Vancouver Island, he doing fieldwork on Nootka and Nitinat, she recording Nitinat songs and trying her hand at phonetic dictation.

But what really caught my attention was a passage about the 1940s.

For Haas, as for most of the other linguists of her generation, the watershed of her career was the onset of the Second World War. In 1940-41, as the United States moved toward entering the war, a cadre of field linguists was recruited to learn and teach the lesser-known languages of the European and Pacific theatres. Before World War II Southeast Asia had been virtually the exclusive domain of scholars from the European countries that had colonized it politically -- Britain, France, and the Netherlands. Hardly a soul in the United States knew anything about the rich profusion of language and cultures of Indochina, Thailand, Burma, or the Indonesian archipelago. Recruited to study Far Eastern languages -- and ordered to produce practical handbooks, teaching grammars and vocabularies -- were such scholars as William S. Cornyn, who was assigned Burmese; Murray Emeneau, who was channeled into the study of Vietnamese; and Haas, who got Thai. Given the near total lack of teaching materials on Thai in those days, Haas, like Cornyn and Emeneau, had to learn her language from scratch, through direct elicitation from native speakers. This was no big problem for her, since she had merely to apply the classic fieldwork techniques honed to such perfection in her Amerindian work to this new language of utterly different phonological and grammatical structure -- an effortless intellectual leap.

Haas spent 1941-43 at the University of Michigan acquiring a knowledge of Thai phonology and syntax through intensive fieldwork with Thai speakers, one of whom, Heng R. Subhanka, became her second husband. ... in 1943 she went to Berkeley where the Army Specialized Training Program had been set up, under the direction of A. L. Kroeber, to teach strategic languages to servicemen.

(Kroeber, by the way, was Ursula K. Le Guin's father.)

By 1942, Haas had produced course materials distributed in mimeographed form under the title Beginning Thai -- and had also begun to publish scholarly papers on Thai, starting with "Types of reduplication in Thai", Studies in Linguistics 1:4 1-6, 1942. She continued to publish both pedagogical and scholarly works on Thai for the next 20 years.

I certainly knew that American linguists and anthropologists had done war-related work during WW II, just as physical scientists did. And it's logical that someone organized this: "William S. Cornyn ... was assigned Burmese; Murray Emeneau ... was channeled into the study of Vietnamese; and Haas ... got Thai". But it never occurred to me before to wonder how this happened and who the organizer was. Was it Kroeber who handed out languages? If you know, tell me.

It was normal for those days that the response was not simply to train people for the war effort, but to take up a completely new area of study in order to do so. Contrast this with the response 60 years later, described by Anne Marie Borrego, "Scholars Revive Boycott of U.S. Grants to Promote Language Training", Chronicle of Higher Education, 8/16/2002.

Times have changed.

[Update -- more here.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at March 1, 2007 06:37 AM