May 28, 2007

In Memoriam: Karl van Duyn Teeter

One of my teachers, Karl Teeter, Professor Emeritus of Linguistics at Harvard University, passed away on April 20 at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts at the age of 78. A native of Lexington, Massachusetts, he received his Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley and spent the rest of his career at Harvard, as a Junior Fellow from 1959-1962, and then as a member of the Linguistics faculty until his retirement in 1989.

His education was in some ways unusual. He dropped out of college and joined the US Army, which sent him to Japan as part of the Occupation force. There he fell in love with Japanese, but as he lived on a military base had only limited exposure to it. Officers were entitled to live off-base with their families, but as an enlisted man (a Supply Sergeant) he at first thought that there was no way to arrange to live off-base. Then he discovered that although the Army did not bring the wives of enlisted men over, enlisted men were nonetheless entitled to live off-base if their family was present. He arranged for his wife Anita to join him at his own expense, then requested off-base housing. He and his wife ended up living in a Japanese house, which both from the point of view of language acquisition and in other respects he found a great improvement on the barracks.

On leaving the Army he returned to college and graduated with a degree in Oriental Languages before entering graduate school in Linguistics. He is known primarily for his work on Algic languages, but he knew Japanese well and though he published little on it, retained an interest in Japanese linguistics, especially dialectology, throughout his life.

Like most Berkeley students of the time, Karl focussed on the native languages of the Americas. His dissertation, supervised by Mary Haas, was a description of Wiyot, a language of Northern California that would soon be extinct. Wiyot was not completely unknown - in addition to a few minor works Gladys Reichard had published a grammar in 1925 - but Karl's work added immeasurably to our knowledge of Wiyot.

The speaker he worked with, Della Prince, who passed away in 1962, is usually listed as the last speaker and the only one still alive when Karl began his work. Actually, Karl told me, there were two remaining speakers. In addition to Mrs. Prince there was an old man who could speak Wiyot. Karl tried to meet him, but he was unwilling. His son, who could not speak Wiyot, wanted his father to work with Karl in order to preserve the language, but the old man had experienced so much discrimination during his working life that, now that he was retired and did not need to deal with white people, he refused to have any contact with them.

Karl's new material on Wiyot was of interest not only for its own sake but for the light that it shed on the long-standing Ritwan controversy, perhaps the paradigm case of the establishment of remote linguistic affiliation. This controversy concerned the 1913 proposal by Edward Sapir that Wiyot and Yurok, another language of Northern California, were related to the Algonquian languages, together forming a larger language family known as "Algic". Such a relationship was unexpected since the Algonquian languages are concentrated in the Northeastern United States and Eastern Canada, with the closest Algonquian language a good 1000 km from California. The controversy is known as the "Ritwan" controversy because of the proposal that Wiyot and Yurok together form a group dubbed "Ritwan".

The evidence that Sapir put forward was weak and the proposal was opposed by Truman Michelson, the leading Algonquianist of the time. After a brief exchange the debate subsided, and for many years the question was considered unresolved. It was finally resolved in the late 1950s and early 1960s due to the new data provided by Karl's work on Wiyot and field work on Yurok by R. H. Robins and Mary Haas, together with new analysis and argumentation. The first public step was the publication of Mary Haas' 1958 paper "Algonkian-Ritwan: The End of a Controversy", which for the first time put forward extensive regular phonological correspondances between Yurok, Wiyot, and Algonquian, including many proposed by Karl in unpublished work. What clinched the case was the grammatical evidence discoverd by Karl and by Ives Goddard. (The details may be found in my paper On the End of the Ritwan Controversy.)

Karl was also one of the relatively few linguists who successfully bridged the transition between the Bloomfieldian tradition of American Structuralism and generative grammar. He became an advocate of generative grammar, but understood its predecessor well and retained some sympathy for it. When as an undergraduate I read the papers of Bernard Bloch on Japanese and wondered at some of the seemingly very odd things that Bloch said, Karl was very helpful in explaining why Bloch felt compelled by the combination of the facts of Japanese and his theoretical assumptions to draw the conclusions that he did. I always thought that Karl would have made an ideal author for a history of American structuralism, but other topics, especially Wiyot, occupied his time. You've got to like the title of one of the few things he wrote in this area, his 1964 paper "Descriptive linguistics in America: Triviality vs. irrelevance".

Karl was a very nice man who always tried to be tactful. One of the odder tasks with which he helped me as a student was in composing a footnote that demonstrated that I had read a paper that appeared to be relevant to my own work but was unable to comment on it because, as best as I could tell, it was incoherent and unintelligible. It isn't easy to say that nicely.

Karl continued his work on Algic with fieldwork on Malecite-Passamaquoddy, an Algonquian language spoken in Maine and New Brunswick. A volume of the Maliseet texts that he recorded, Tales from Maliseet Country: The Maliseet Texts of Karl V. Teeter, translated and edited by Philip LeSourd, was published earlier this year by the University of Nebraska Press. He also continued to work on Wiyot. His two-volume Wiyot Handbook was published in 1993. The Wiyot lexicon on which he worked for many years remains unpublished.

Posted by Bill Poser at May 28, 2007 01:08 AM