Henry Lee Smith Jr.

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Amazingly, it appears that Henry Lee Smith Jr. has no Wikipedia page, despite a notable career in science, public service, and the media. According to his 1972 NYT obituary:

In 1940, when Dr. Smith was 27 and a member of the Department of English at Brown University, he came to public attention on the radio program, “Where Are You From?” over WOR. He selected people from a studio audience, listened to them talk and told them where they came from. He was right in four out of five tries.

For more about that radio program, see "Dr. Smith", The New Yorker 11/22/1940 (page image here), or "Radio: Where Are You From?", Time Magazine 5/6/1940.

According to a "Flashback" by the UB Reporter ("55 Years Ago: Henry Lee Smith, Linguist", 10/27/2011):

After receiving his PhD from Princeton and lecturing at Barnard, Columbia, and Brown, Smith headed the Language Section, Information and Education Division of the U.S. Army from 1942 to 1946.

Prior to the war, there were no foreign language materials for the bulk of the military and civilian personnel, and Smith, along with linguists he recruited, produced language guides, phrase books and military and general-purpose dictionaries in many different languages. Under Smith’s direction, the linguists also developed what came to be known as the Army method of language instruction—later adopted by colleges and universities—emphasizing the use of phonograph records on which a native speaker recited the foreign words and allowed a pause for repetition by the student.

Smith founded the State Department’s School of Language and Linguistics in 1946, and served as the school’s director prior to coming to UB.

For more about the role of linguists in (what became) the Defense Language Institute, see "A tale of two societies" (3/1/2007) and "Linguistics in 1940" (3/11/2007).

My personal exposure to Smith's work was through the influential 1951 monograph that we used to call "Trager Smith"  — I remember being struck by how many of the examples in Chomsky & Halle's 1968 The Sound Pattern of English were reproduced exactly from that source. (A link to a .pdf, courtesy of the Internet Archive, is here.)

In 1957, Henry Lee Smith recorded a set of video "Lectures on Language", at least eight of which are now available on YouTube. There are seven in one playlist:

The episodes on that playlist are

A lecture on "Dialects" is elsewhere on YouTube — this seems to have been Episode 6.

Comments on the various episodes include

"These lectures are really soothing. It feels like my brain is getting a massage."

"I want to have a couple of martinis with him so badly."

"Incredibly interesting and has largely stood the test of time!"

"I love how, when mentioning the "discovery" of Sanskrit, he specified the western perspective of discovery. So self aware for the time, I'm genuinely impressed—though I suppose the field of linguistics is a great one for universal humanizing!"

I'm not sure where these were originally recorded and broadcast, or where to find the missing episodes.

And I haven't been able to locate any recordings of the 1940 "Where are you from?" radio program.

[h/t Bob Shackleton]



  1. JHH said,

    March 5, 2022 @ 10:41 am


  2. r-bryan said,

    March 5, 2022 @ 11:35 am

    Prof. Liberman, it seems like you have collected enough info and supporting references to create the Wikipedia page yourself!

  3. Sally Thomason said,

    March 5, 2022 @ 11:46 am

    His friends called him Haxie. I recently read a letter from an older linguist who said that Haxie Smith helped support George Trager, in the sense of helping Trager have some kind of academic career. Apparently Trager was a sufficiently difficult person that, as one contemporary put it, he would've been thrown out of George Trager University.

  4. Bob Shackleotn said,

    March 5, 2022 @ 1:17 pm

    He hired my Mom as the first French teacher at the Foreign Service Language Institute in 1948. He was, by all accounts, an incredibly entertaining teacher.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    March 5, 2022 @ 2:52 pm

    I wonder how they pronounced "Haxie". It could mean all sorts of things in Pinyin Mandarin.

  6. Bob Ladd said,

    March 5, 2022 @ 3:26 pm

    Haxie is/was pronounced hack-see (sorry no IPA). Like MYL, my introduction to English phonology was through the Trager-Smith "Outline of English Structure".

    My father was an undergraduate at Brown when Smith was there and was prodded by his friends to go on the "Where are you from? radio show". (My father grew up in Wareham, Massachusetts, and had the accent to match.) As he recalled it much later, Smith only asked him to say "Mary, merry, marry" and then said "I'd say you come from within 15 miles of the Cape Cod Canal". Even allowing for a little touching up in memory, it must have been quite an experience.

  7. Garrett Wollman said,

    March 5, 2022 @ 7:22 pm

    The lacunae in Wikipedia are interesting and probably worthy of study in themselves. For my part, I spent much of my free time in the past week working on a biography of an important 20th century advertising executive, whose business partners all had articles but himself did not. That was a follow-on to trying to create biography articles for the principles of a different ad agency and coming to a dead end because there simply weren't sufficient reliable sources available to actually write one. (Well, there was a lot about them in the society pages of the Chicago Tribune — it was a Chicago-based agency in the beginning — but eight squibs on where someone vacationed and when they were having calling hours do not a biography make.) 20th-century figures of middling importance — important enough to be important in their field but not famous enough to have biographies written about them — seem to be particularly difficult. (Even if you have access to an archive of personal papers, you can't use unpublished material on Wikipedia.)

  8. Arthur Baker said,

    March 5, 2022 @ 9:59 pm

    Thank you so much for the YouTube links above. I've only watched the first 10 minutes of Episode 1, but already I'm a Haxie fan. I like this guy. (Incidentally, does he look like Bob Hope, or what?)

  9. Fritz said,

    March 6, 2022 @ 12:21 pm

    In the 1970s and 1980s I showed a reel-to-reel film of 'Where are You From?' to my beginning students and at parties (it was hilarious). It's probably still in the University of Washington library, though unlikely to have been converted to a more useable format.

  10. Bob Shackleton said,

    March 6, 2022 @ 1:40 pm

    I think the film of "Where Are You From?" postdates the radio show by a decade or two.

    A search of UDub libraries yields 4 films of Smith but not "Where Are You From?":


    IIRC I found several recordings in the collection of his materials in the library system of the University of Buffalo, where he last taught.

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