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Kenneth Locke Hale

MIT Professor of Linguistics Kenneth Locke Hale died on Monday, October 8 in his Lexington home. He was 67 years old.

Hale arrived at MIT in 1967 with a BA degree in Anthropology from the University of Arizona, and a Masters and PhD in linguistics from Indiana University, Bloomington.

Institute Professor Noam Chomsky called Hale “one of the world’s leading scholars.” In a MIT News Office press release, Chomsky said Hale was “dear to countless people, he was also one of those very few people who truly merits the term ‘a voice for the voiceless.’”

Hale studied the theoretical concept of language universals through cross-linguistic analysis. By learning many structurally diverse languages, Hale could discover the laws that they all shared. Explaining this line of study, Sabine Iatridou, professor of linguistics at MIT and Hale’s colleague, said, “The idea is that if a particular phenomenon holds in a variety of languages, chances are it is reflection of what is called Universal Grammar, the properties of human language proper, not a result of accidental or historical reasons.”

The preservation of diverse languages was another focus of Hale’s career. He argued that language is a key part of a culture. In a 1995 interview, Hale said “When you lose a language, a large part of the culture goes, too, because much of that culture is encoded in the language.” To combat this, Hale supported the study of linguistics by native speakers of indigenous languages. Paul R. Platero ’73 and LaVerne Masayesua Jeanne PhD ’78, Navajo and Hopi, respectively, studied under Hale for their graduate degrees. They are believed to be the first Native Americans to receive doctorates in linguistics.

Philip S. Khoury, dean of the School of Humanities, recalled Hale’s work to the MIT News Office. “He had the ability to learn and speak languages by the dozens and he did. Once I asked him about this, and he said, ‘the problem is that many of the languages I’ve learned are extinct, or close to extinction, and I have no one to speak them with!’”

Samuel Jay Keyser, professor of linguistics, emeritus, at MIT, as well as friend and colleague of Hale for over 20 years, spoke of Hale’s perspective on his studies. “Ken viewed languages as if they were works of art. Every person who spoke a language was a curator of a masterpiece,” Keyser said.

Hale is survived by his wife, Sara; brother, Stephen; and by four sons: Whitaker, Ian, Caleb, and Ezra. A memorial service for Hale will be held at MIT on Thursday, November 1 at 2 p.m., in the Wong Auditorium. Burial will be private.