STILLPOINT Archive: last updated 04/09/2015

Kenneth L. Pike '33, a Man of Peace

Not many people can say they invented a word now in the Oxford English Dictionary. But Kenneth Pike ’33 could make that claim not once but twice. The two words he coined are emic and etic. “I took the word phonemic and crossed out the phon- part, meaning ‘sound,’” Pike once explained, “after realizing that it made no sense to study just the language of a group of people; one needed also to take into account their culture.” He derived etic from phonetic, to refer to a detached, scientific approach to people and their languages.

An original, creative thinker, Pike brought together scholarship and fieldwork, forging a synthesis between the academic study of linguistic structures and the ways those structures are revealed in actual human situations. The result was tagmemics, an approach he developed in his three-volume work Language in Relation to a Unified Theory of the Structure of Human Behavior

To study indigenous languages (and help create written “grammars” for some that previously were only oral), he went to Africa, Asia, Australia and South America to live amongst the people who spoke them. He also published more than 20 scholarly books and 200 articles. He had ties with Christian institutions and with secular ones, serving on the University of Michigan faculty while also directing Wycliffe Bible Translators’ Summer Institute of Linguistics for 37 years. He was formative in the Wycliffe ethos that even the smallest, most obscure languages are of inestimable value.

Pike did not set out to become a linguist. Inspired by a biography of J. Hudson Taylor, as a Gordon student Pike hoped to follow in Taylor’s steps as a missionary to China. But for reasons that may, ironically, have included his poor showing as a student of Chinese, that door closed. So after graduating from Gordon in 1933 with a major in New Testament Greek, he did a year of advanced study, and then hitchhiked to Arkansas to attend “Camp Wycliffe.” 

As one of the first Wycliffe translators, he completed the agency’s first translation—the New Testament in Mixtec. (He and his wife, Evelyn, devised the written system for the Mixtec language.) He was the first SIL staff member to earn a Ph.D., dovetailing his doctoral work abroad with summer classes and SIL responsibilities.

Pike was nominated 16 consecutive times for the Nobel Peace Prize. The nominations applauded not only his Scripture translation, but also his role in providing basic literacy skills to thousands around the world. Senator Paul Simon said of him, in 1982, “No other individual or group has done more for some of the most downtrodden (people) of the world.” 

Dr. Graeme Bird co-directs Gordon’s linguistics major and oversees the classics minor.