Obituary of Isidore Dyen

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[By Margaret Sharpe and Doris Dyen]

Isidore Dyen, Emeritus Professor of Linguistics at Yale University, died on 14th December 2008, surrounded by family members, after one final bout of cancer. He became known in the 1960s for his seminal work on Austronesian languages, and on Proto-Austronesian, the ancestral language of languages from Indonesia to Madagascar and across the Pacific Ocean. Until a few weeks before his death, he was continuing his research in attempts to subgroup yet another collection of Austronesian languages.

Isidore Dyen was born on 16th August 1913 in Philadelphia, the youngest of the family of Rabbi Jacob Dyen and his wife Dina (Bryzell). The family’s home language was Yiddish, which therefore became one of Isidore’s mother tongues. His father had hoped he would become a rabbi, and paid for his undergraduate study at the University of Pennsylvania on the condition that he also complete Hebrew studies at Gratz College, which he did in 1932. But Isidore’s interests were elsewhere, and as he commented, he and his father came to an understanding. He was a sceptic about religion though clearly proud of his Jewish heritage and his mode of arguing and reasoning owed much to traditional rabbinic methods.

Isidore’s Hebrew name was Isaac, meaning ‘he laughs’, an appropriate choice for a man who enjoyed witty repartee, joked (even up to within a day or two of his death), and had such a zest for life. Family members and those close to him remember with delight his habit of singing in the shower. He had a good baritone voice, though he aspired to be a tenor. Traditional Irish songs and Italian operatic arias were a mainstay of his repertoire. He enjoyed art, classical music, visiting zoos, watching football and tennis on TV, and gourmet food.

His three academic degrees were all obtained from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia: B.A. in 1933; M.A. in 1934; and Ph.D. in 1939, in Indo-European linguistics. He chose to focus on Slavic languages, and was to have gone to Russia in 1939 with his bride Edith (Brenner – d. 1976) to do research there. But the Second World War put an end to that plan. Instead, on the invitation of linguist Leonard Bloomfield, he began his career at Yale University in New Haven. He was offered exemption from U.S. military service if he would learn a Southeast Asian language and devise lessons for the troops. He chose Malay, and set out to find speakers of the language from among Malay sailors who had jumped ship and were living illegally in New York. He convinced them he was not an agent of the government and would not report them for deportation. He became fluent in the language as it was spoken and soon was teaching Malay to soldiers bound for the Asian front.

The closing of the opportunity to do research in Europe and the choice of Malay for the war effort led Dyen to work in the field which would occupy him for the rest of his life, the study and classification of the widely dispersed Austronesian languages (often referred to earlier as Malayo-Polynesian languages). Following the war’s cessation, in 1947 and 1949 he carried out field documentation of the languages of the Micronesian islands of Truk and Yap, the first of several research trips to the Pacific, which included a year in Bandung, Indonesia, accompanied by his family (1960-61), as well as later work in the Philippines and New Zealand. Alone and in collaboration with other scholars, he also explored applying the methods of lexicostatistics and glottochronology he was developing to other language groups, such as Indo-European and Amerindian.

Dyen rose through the ranks at Yale University, was given tenure in 1948, and was subsequently promoted to full professor of Malayo-Polynesian (later Austronesian) and Comparative Linguistics. He served on the faculty at Yale for over 40 years, holding various positions there as director of graduate studies in Indic, Far Eastern and Southeast Asian languages, and became Professor Emeritus in 1984. He was also a member of Saybrook College at Yale. During those years, one of his colleagues was Paul Mus, professor of Southeast Asian Civilizations at both Yale and the Sorbonne in France. Mus described him as a tiger on the outside, but on the inside, a kitten. He could be verbally acerbic, especially to those close to him as family members or linguistic colleagues, but was at heart a gentle person. In late 1996, he was presented with a Festschrift, edited by Bernd Nothofer, with papers in his honor.

Following his retirement from Yale, Dyen moved to Honolulu, where he became an Adjunct Professor of Linguistics at the University of Hawaii and continued his research. His close colleague, Australian linguist Margaret Sharpe, helped him catalog his library, and transferred his Proto-Austronesian etyma to computer files. He regularly participated in scholarly institutes and symposia in the Philippines, Australia, Tokyo, and elsewhere, presenting his findings in papers and issuing publications up through 2007. He delivered his final conference paper in 2006 in Palawan, the Philippines, at the age of 93.

His focus in both research and teaching was always on languages and their use, rather than in prescriptive or literary descriptions. He treated all persons he encountered from other races and cultures with courtesy and respect. Ethnic prejudice was completely lacking in him. He always tried to use the local language of whatever country or region he was in and sometimes these attempts led to hilarity. His family recall his speaking Homeric Greek to a taxi driver in Athens, who turned to him and said in English: ‘You sound as if you escaped from a museum. We haven’t spoken that way here in thousands of years!’

Describing himself as a linguistic scientist, he was a fierce and fearless proponent of the use of exacting scientific method and analysis, and he excoriated colleagues whom he thought fell short of that standard. During one memorable conference in Barcelona in the mid-1960s, the writer Thor Heyerdahl, drawing on his own sailing experiments with replicas of ancient craft which he had documented in his book Kon-tiki (1950), advanced the hypothesis that the dispersal of seafaring peoples in the Pacific had been east-to-west, and that the peoples of the Pacific Islands had come from South America. Dyen then stood up and publicly took the famous author to task, citing linguistic evidence that the dispersal had to have been west-to-east and could not have happened in the way that Heyerdahl was suggesting. But what began as a confrontation developed into a friendship between the two men.

Dyen’s wish that his Austronesian library be given to the University of the Philippines has been honored. His enormous working collection of drawers of 3×5 cards and slips of paper has found a home with senior linguist Dr. R. David Zorc, who will use them in his own work on subgrouping of the Austronesian languages.

Isidore Dyen is survived by his daughter Doris Dyen and her husband Deane Root (Pittsburgh, PA), his son Mark and his wife Beth Reisen (Newton, MA); and five grandchildren: Jessica and Melanie Root, and Lisa, Michael and Susannah Dyen.

1 Comment

  1. language hat said,

    January 8, 2009 @ 11:04 am

    I studied with Professor Dyen at Yale in the '70s and am glad to learn about his life before and after that. Thanks for this post, and my condolences to his family.

    Steve Dodson

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