Alton L. Becker

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Alton Lewis (Pete) Becker
File:Alton L. Becker portrait.jpg
Born April 6, 1932 (1932-04-06)
Monroe, Michigan
Died November 15, 2011 (2011-11-16)
Residence Ann Arbor, Michigan
Nationality American
Fields Linguistics, Philology, Anthropology
Institutions Kambawza College (Taunggi, Burma), University of Connecticut, Ripon College, University of Michigan
Alma mater University of Michigan
Thesis A Generative Description of the English Subject Tagmemes (1967)
Doctoral advisor Kenneth Pike
Doctoral students Marc Benamou
Known for Translation, Philology, Rhetoric, Southeast Asian languages, Ethnography of Communication, Anthropology of Language

Alton L. (Pete) Becker (April 6, 1932 – November 15, 2011) was an American linguist known for his studies of Burmese grammar and other Southeast Asian languages, including Malaysian, Javanese and Kawi. He was a professor of linguistics at the University of Michigan from 1968 to 1986. Becker published studies in philology, rhetoric, and the ethnography of communication. He was coauthor with Richard E. Young and Kenneth L. Pike of the widely influential college writing textbook, Rhetoric: Discovery and Change, which introduced a Rogerian framework for communication and rhetoric studies as an alternative to the Aristotelian approach.[1] To recognize his significant contributions and publications of translations from Southeast Asian languages to English, the Association for Asian Studies awards the annual A. L. Becker Prize to honor his significant contributions.[2]


Becker was born in Monroe, Michigan. In Southeast Michigan, he often attended jazz performances in Detroit, and he also began a lifelong love of canoeing. He studied English literature at the University of Michigan, where he completed a Bachelor's degree in 1954. He married Judith Omans in 1953. He later attended the University of Connecticut, where earned a master's degree in 1956 and also taught.[3] From 1958 to 1961, he lived and worked in Taunggyi, Burma. He moved to Burma with his wife Judith and their son Matthew, and their son Andrew was born there.[3] In Burma, he taught English at Kambawza College under the Fulbright program.[4] He credited this experience in Burma and his study of Burmese for his change in scholarly interests from English literature to linguistics, particularly his work in language and culture, the ethnography of communication, and for his studies of Southeast Asian languages and ancient texts.[3] He returned to Southeast Asia in 1969, when he held a two-year position teaching linguistics at the Universitas Negeri Malang, in Malang, Indonesia.[3]

Academic career

Becker taught at the University of Michigan from 1961 to 1986. From 1961 to 1968, prior to receiving the PhD, he taught English at Michigan while a graduate student under the direction of Kenneth L. Pike. He joined the Department of Linguistics at Michigan as assistant professor in 1968 and was named full professor in 1974. His course "Language and Culture" was particularly popular.[4] At Michigan, Becker performed as a puppeteer with the University Gamelan.[5] Becker's writing about the Javanese wayang (shadow puppet play) was described as "brilliant."[6] In his most well-known essay on the epistemology of the shadow play, he notes that the "neatly divided" visual aspects, musical aspects, and verbal aspects of the performance allow it to be appreciated by many, and Becker's essay makes the play relatable to "outsider" (non-Indonesian) audiences:

An outsider can watch a performance with real aesthetic involvement without knowing the language. The musical accompaniment by the gamelan is appealingly rich and complex. In many ways, a shadowplay can be understood as a silent movie, with a theatre orchestra playing in the pit. Foreigners watch Javanese shadowplays that way with real aesthetic satisfaction.[7]

At the same time, connoisseurs can appreciate the linguistic registers of the dalang (puppeteer) who uses both ancient and modern languages, as well as Javanese and Indonesian, which allows for the plays to simultaneously "speak in the past" and "speak in the present."[7] Becker's essay is the first to examine Indonesian thought and "text-building" through a lens of language and culture as epistemology.[6]

Becker received numerous distinctions that recognized his academic contributions. Becker was Director of the Michigan Center for South and Southeast Asian Studies from 1972 to 1975.[4] He was a senior fellow of the Michigan Society of Fellows from 1975 to 1978[8] and a scholar in residence at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study in 1981–1982.[9] He received the University of Michigan Press Book Award in 1995 for this book, recognized as the best book published in 1995 by the press.[10] In 1996, a linguistics conference titled "The Notion of Person: A Conference to Honor the Work of Alton L. Becker" was held in his honor.[11][12] His publications on semiotics, rhetoric, and the ethnography of communication have been widely influential in linguistics.[13] Upon his death, the Association for Asian Studies established the AAS Southeast Asia Council (SEAC) A. L. Becker Southeast Asian Literature in Translation Prize in Becker's memory.[2]

Scholarly Works

Books and Articles

  • Becker, Alton L.; Pike, Kenneth L. (April 1964). "Progressive Neutralization in Dimensions of Navaho Stem Matrices". International Journal of American Linguistics. 30 (2). pp. 144–154.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Young, R. E.; Becker, Alton L.; Pike, Kenneth L. (1970). Rhetoric: Discovery and Change. New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World. ISBN 0155768956.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Becker, Alton L. (1975). "A Linguistic Image of Nature: The Burmese Numerative Classifier System". Linguistics. 13 (165). pp. 109–122.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Becker, Alton L. (1979), Aram Yengoyan and Alton L. Becker, ed., Text-Building, Epistemology, and Aesthetics in the Javanese Shadow Theatre, Norwood, NJ: ABLEX.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1/Identifiers at line 47: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value).
  • Becker, Alton L. (1982). Prof. J. W. M. Verhaar, S. J.; Kridalaksana, Harimurti; Moelions, Anton M., eds. Binding Wild Words: Cohesion in Old Javanese Prose. Jakarta: Penerbit Bhratara Karya Aksara.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Becker, Alton L., ed. (1989). Writing on the Tongue. Michigan papers on South and Southeast Asia no. 33. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Center for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Michigan.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Becker, Alton L. (1993). W. Foley, ed. The Elusive Figures of Burmese Grammar. Trends in Linguistics, Studies and Monographs 69. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Becker, Alton L. (1995). Beyond Translation: Essays toward a Modern Philology. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Secondary texts



  1. Young, R. E.; Becker, Alton L.; Pike, Kenneth L. (1970). Rhetoric: Discovery and Change. New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. 2.0 2.1 Association for Asian Studies, A. L. Becker Prize Recipients, retrieved March 2013 Check date values in: |accessdate= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3, accessed January 2014
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2, accessed January 2014
  5. University of Michigan Gamelan Ensemble Concert Programs: 1967–2005,, accessed February 2014
  6. 6.0 6.1 Jennifer Lindsay, Between Tongues: Translation And/Of/In Performance in Asia (Singapore University Press, 2006), p. 141.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Becker, Alton L. (1979), Aram Yengoyan and Alton L. Becker, ed., Text-Building, Epistemology, and Aesthetics in the Javanese Shadow Theatre, Norwood, NJ: ABLEX.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. "Senior Fellows," Michigan Society of Fellows<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. "Community of Scholars Profile," Princeton Institute for Advanced Study<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Citation from University of Michigan Press, accessed January 2014
  11. Conference Announcement: The Notion of a Person<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. Conference Schedule February 1996: Linguistics & Related Topics<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. List of publications from SIL, accessed January 2014