UC Berkeley News


Murray Emeneau

14 September 2005

Murray Barnson Emeneau, emeritus professor of linguistics and Sanskrit, died in his sleep on Aug. 29 at the age of 101, in his Berkeley home. He was an expert in "language areas" and the Dravidian languages of south and central India and founder of the Survey of California and Other Indian Languages.

Born on Feb. 28, 1904, in Lunenberg, Nova Scotia, Emeneau, a Rhodes Scholar, received his Ph.D. at Yale University in 1931. He worked for several years as a lecturer and researcher in Sanskrit at Yale, where he was heavily influenced by Edward Sapir, one of the greatest linguists of the 20th century. On Sapir's suggestion, Emeneau went to India in 1936 to work on Toda, a non-literary Dravidian language. He stayed in India for three years, doing linguistic fieldwork on the Toda, Badaga, Kolami, and Kota languages.

Emeneau was hired in the classics department at Berkeley in 1940 as an assistant professor of Sanskrit and general linguistics. He became an associate professor in 1943 and was promoted to full professor in 1946. He wrote 21 books and, by the time of his death, his other publications numbered in the triple digits.

When Emeneau first went to India, no linguistic fieldwork on the non-literary Dravidian languages had been done. Emeneau created this field through work that includes grammars of Kolami and Toda and a three-volume Kota text. Another of Emeneau's major achievements in Dravidian studies is the Dravidian Etymological Dictionary, written with Thomas Burrow and first published in 1961.

Emeneau is also generally seen as having initiated the modern field of "linguistic areas" in his 1956 article "India as a Linguistic Area," which was published in the issue of Language that honored Berkeley anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber on his 80th birthday.

Emeneau's work in this field continued with studies of mutual linguistic influences, including a 1962 book on Dravidian borrowings from Indo-Aryan. In the history of linguistics at Berkeley, he mediated between Kroeber's interest in "culture areas" and the larger-scale areal focus of Johanna Nichols, a professor of Slavic languages.

He persuaded Berkeley to establish a Survey of California Indian Languages and a Department of Linguistics, which he chaired from 1953 to 1956. After a year's sabbatical, he resumed the post for one year.

The Survey of California Indian Languages later became the Survey of California and Other Indian Languages, indirectly succeeding the Ethnographic and Linguistic Survey of California established by Kroeber in 1901. "It was and remains an immensely significant institution for the documentation of the indigenous languages of California and elsewhere in the United States outside Alaska and Hawaii," said Andrew Garrett, acting director of the survey and a Berkeley professor of linguistics.

In the 1950s, '60s, and '70s, under the leadership of Mary Haas, a fellow student of Sapir's whom Emeneau hired, generations of graduate students documented words, grammatical structures, and texts in dozens of California languages, Garrett noted. Some of those languages have few or no remaining native speakers today, he added.

Now, he said, the mission of the survey has expanded to include language documentation throughout the United States and in other parts of the Western hemisphere - as well as numerous projects designed to make the results of that documentation accessible to native communities in California. "It is now probably the most important university archive of documentary material on the languages of the continental U.S.," Garrett said.

Emeneau gave the Berkeley Faculty Research Lecture in 1956. On his retirement from the campus in 1971 he received its highest honor, the Berkeley Citation. Among his many other honors, Emeneau was the recipient of four honorary degrees, the Wilbur Lucius Cross Medal from Yale, and the Medal of Merit of the American Oriental Society. He was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the British Academy, and an honorary member of the Linguistic Society of India. He was the sole honorary member of the Philological Society, the oldest linguistic professional society in the English-speaking world.

Emeneau is survived by a stepdaughter, Phyllis Savage, of Tustin. A campus memorial is tentatively planned for spring 2006.

- Kathleen Maclay