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Murray B. Emeneau

From: Language
Volume 82, Number 2, June 2006
pp. 411-422 | 10.1353/lan.2006.0080

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Murray B. Emeneau

Murray Barnson Emeneau died peacefully at the age of 101 at his home in Berkeley, California. Perhaps the last surviving student of Edward Sapir, Emeneau was the principal founder of the Linguistics Department at his university and of the Survey of California Indian Languages. He was known in India and internationally as a Sanskritist, as the world’s most distinguished scholar of the Dravidian language family of India, and as the twentieth century’s principal exponent of the concept of ‘language area’.1

1. Overview

Emeneau was born on February 28, 1904 in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. In high school he studied Latin, Greek, and German, and distinguished himself so much that he obtained a four-year scholarship at Dalhousie University (in Halifax, Nova Scotia), where he continued his classical studies. The continuing excellence of his performance won him a Rhodes Scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford University. From there he went in 1926 to Yale University, with a teaching appointment in Latin; but at the same time he began to study Sanskrit and comparative Indo-European with Franklin Edgerton and Edgar Sturtevant. His 1931 dissertation was on Sanskrit, and Emeneau was by this time a committed Indologist.

With jobs scarce during the Depression, Emeneau stayed on in New Haven, surviving on small research fellowships and attending additional classes—crucially, those of Edward Sapir, who was by then teaching ‘the new linguistics’ at Yale. As Emeneau wrote, ‘I was exposed to methods of fieldwork on non-literary languages, including intensive phonetic practice and analysis of material, but especially to Sapir’s approach to anthropological linguistics, in which language is only part of the total culture, but a most important part, since in it the community expresses in its own way, “verbifies” its culture’ (1980:352).

But Leonard Bloomfield, whose book Language was published in 1933, was a presence on the Yale campus at the same time; and it was the school of structural linguistics founded by Bloomfield that became the model for Emeneau’s later teaching and for his descriptive work in Indic and Dravidian linguistics. Another significant influence was Philip Kahclamat, a Wishram Chinook speaker brought by Sapir from Oregon; as Emeneau later wrote, ‘what I learned [from Kahclamat] about massive consonant clusters rid me of any inhibitions I might have had when I came to deal with similar material in the Toda and Kota languages of South India’ (1991:94–95). In later years, Emeneau was fond of citing Wishram forms like /ƚtpčkt/ ‘they are coming this way from the water’.

By 1935, with no job prospects in the US for the anthropological Indological linguist that Emeneau had become, his teachers raised funds to send him to India for three [End Page 411] years. Sapir recommended that he study Toda, a little-known ‘tribal’ language of the Dravidian family, spoken in the Nilgiri Hills of South India; and Sapir specifically suggested that this might lead to a study of comparative Dravidian. Emeneau in fact did major fieldwork on four Dravidian languages during this period—Toda, Kota, Kodagu (Coorg), and Kolami, as well as briefer work on Badaga and Brahui—and comparative Dravidian was indeed the field in which he was to become a world leader.

After teaching linguistics at Yale for a year, Emeneau was hired in 1940 as Assistant Professor of Sanskrit and General Linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley. (In 1941 he became a US citizen.) He rose to full Professor by 1946, and retired to Emeritus status in 1971. He was Chair of the Linguistics Department from 1953 to 1958, and of the Classics Department from 1959 to 1962. In 1948, when I first became his student, he was regularly teaching the undergraduate courses in general linguistics, phonetics and phonemics, morphology and syntax, comparative Indo-European, and Sanskrit; he also had a course in the Classics Department entitled simply ‘India’. Among the academic honors that came his way were the presidency of both the Linguistic Society of America and the American Oriental Society; two Guggenheim fellowships; election to the American Philosophical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; and honorary doctorates from the University of Chicago, Dalhousie...