Kenneth L. Hale

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Kenneth Locke Hale (August 15, 1934 – October 8, 2001) was a linguist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studied a huge variety of previously unstudied and often endangered languages—especially indigenous languages of North America, Central America and Australia. Languages investigated by Hale include Navajo, O'odham, Warlpiri, and Ulwa, among many others.


Hale was born in Evanston, Illinois. When he was six his family moved to a ranch near Canelo in southern Arizona. He was a student at the University of Arizona from 1952 and obtained his PhD from Indiana University Bloomington in 1959 (thesis A Papago grammar). He taught at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1961-63 and at the University of Arizona, Tucson in 1963-66. From 1967 he held a sequence of appointments at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology until his retirement in 1999.

Hale was known as a polyglot who retained the ability to learn new languages with extraordinary rapidity and perfection throughout his life. As a child in addition to English he learned both Spanish and Tohono O'odham. He learned Jemez and Hopi from his high school roommates and Navajo from his roommate at the University of Arizona. He became so fluent in Warlpiri that he raised his sons Ezra and Caleb to speak Warlpiri after his return from Australia to the United States. Ezra delivered his eulogy for his father in Warlpiri.


Among his major contributions to linguistic theory was the hypothesis that certain languages were non-configurational, lacking the phrase structure characteristic of such languages as English. Non-configurational languages, according to Hale, display a set of properties that cluster together, including free word order, unpronounced pronouns and the ability to disperse semantically related words across a sentence. Much of his research in the last two decades of the twentieth century was devoted to the development of syntactic models that could explain why these properties cluster. Hale's ideas initiated an important research program, still pursued by many contemporary linguists.

Hale took care to educate native speakers in linguistics so they could participate in the study of their languages. Among his students are the Tohono O'odham linguist Ofelia Zepeda, the Hopi linguist LaVerne Masayesva Jeanne, Navajo linguists Paul Platero, MaryAnn Willie, and Ellavina Tsosie Perkins, and Wampanoag linguist Jessie Little Doe Baird. Hale taught every summer in the Navajo Language Academy summer school, even in 2001 during his final illness.

In 1990 he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.[1]

Hale championed the importance of under-studied minority languages in linguistic study, stating that a variety of linguistic phenomena would never have been discovered if only the major world languages had been studied. He argued that any language, whether it has a hundred million native speakers or only ten, is equally likely to yield linguistic insight. Hale was also known as a champion of the speakers of minority languages, and not just of their languages, for which his MIT colleague Noam Chomsky called him "a voice for the voiceless".


As a young man growing up in Canelo and Tucson, Arizona Hale was an avid bull and bronc rider. A film clip of Hale being thrown from a bull in the 1952 Tucson Rodeo was used as stock footage and is included in the film Arena featuring Gig Young.


At the age of 14 Ken Hale met his future wife Sara Whitaker on his parents' ranch in Canelo, Arizona. Ken Hale and Sara Whitaker attended the Verde Valley School together for a year before Ken said he was "thrown out" for being too distracted by his study of languages. Sara Whitaker always disputed this saying he simply transferred to Tucson High School. They later became reacquainted at the University of Arizona. Ken and Sally, as she was known, had 4 children: Whitaker, Ian (adopted), and the twins Caleb and Ezra.


  • "Bibliography of Ken Hale and Australian languages", by David Nash in Jane Simpson, David Nash, et al., eds, Forty years on: Ken Hale and Australian languages, Pacific Linguistics 2001. ISBN 0-85883-524-X (contains a complete listing of all Ken Hale’s work relating to Australia)
  1. Saxon, Wolfgang (October 19, 2001). "Kenneth L. Hale, 67, Preserver of Nearly Extinct Languages - The New York Times". Retrieved May 7, 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

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