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UC Berkeley Press Release

Founder of UC Berkeley's linguistics department, American Indian language survey, dies

  Murray Barnson Emeneau
Murray Barnson Emeneau, emeritus professor of linguistics and Sanskrit (John Ohala photo)

– Murray Barnson Emeneau, emeritus professor of linguistics and Sanskrit at the University of California, Berkeley, 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, died on Aug. 29 at the age of 101. He died in his sleep in his Berkeley home.

Born on Feb. 28, 1904, in Lunenberg, Nova Scotia, Emeneau studied French, German and Latin in high school. He studied Greek and Latin at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, where he earned his bachelor's degree in 1923, then at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, and finally at Yale University as a graduate student in classics. Emeneau moved into the study of Sanskrit and received his Ph.D. at Yale 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 who joined Yale's faculty in 1931. Emeneau attended his classes, among them the famous field methods class on Wishram, a Chinookan language spoken in Oregon. 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 UC Berkeley in 1940 as an assistant professor of Sanskrit and general linguistics.

During World War II, he worked on Vietnamese, about which he wrote three books and a volume of grammatical studies. He became an associate professor at UC Berkeley in 1943 and was promoted to full professor in 1946. Emeneau 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. The literary languages of the Dravidian language family were well known, but the field of Dravidian linguistics didn't yet exist because most of the languages of the family were not known to scholars.

Emeneau created this field through work that includes grammars of Kolami and Toda, published in 1955 and 1984, and a Kota text collection published in three volumes between 1944 and 1946. His 1939 article in the journal Language on the Badaga language is still the clearest study of a unique phenomenon in the world's languages: a system of vowels that includes not one, but two degrees of retroflexion -- a quality like the sound of English "er".

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," that was published in the issue of Language that honored UC 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 with Burrow on Dravidian borrowings from Indo-Aryan. In the history of linguistics at UC Berkeley, he mediated between Kroeber's interest in "culture areas" and the larger-scale areal focus of UC Berkeley 's Johanna Nichols, a professor of Slavic languages.

Yet Emeneau's perspective and contributions to the field were original and grounded in his own formation, and among his first articles, published 69 years ago in Language, was a study of the English dialect of Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, where he grew up.

In 1949, he served as president of the Linguistic Society of America, writing as his presidential address a paper about the relationship between linguistic and social structures in the area of kinship.

He persuaded UC 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 UC 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 was named the Collitz Professor of the Linguistic Society of America in 1953. In 1954, he served as president of the American Oriental Society.

He gave the UC Berkeley Faculty Research Lecture in 1956. On his retirement from the campus in 1971, he received UC Berkeley's highest honor, the Berkeley Citation.

Emeneau also was the recipient of four honorary degrees, the Wilbur Lucius Cross Medal from Yale, and the Medal of Merit of the American Oriental Society, Emeneau was also a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a fellow of the British Academy, and an honorary member of the Philological Society and 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.

"Of all the linguists of the 20th century -- general, theoretical, historical or descriptive -- whom I have known personally or with whose work I am familiar, Murray Emeneau is the one I most admire both as a scholar and as a man," said Ron Asher, professor of theoretical and applied linguistics at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and a former Emeneau student.

William Bright, an adjunct professor of linguistics at the University of Colorado and one of Emeneau's former students, agreed that Emeaneau's students learned more from him than linguistics.

"They also learned something about the highest goals and standards of scholarship, about meticulousness in research and writing, about the importance of making one's findings available to colleagues through publication, and about dedicated professionalism, in general," he said.

Emeneau is survived by a step-daughter, Phyllis Savage, of Tustin, Calif.

A campus memorial is tentatively planned for spring 2006.