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Eugene Albert Nida

From: Language
Volume 89, Number 1, March 2013
pp. 163-169 | 10.1353/lan.2013.0008

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Eugene Albert Nida, 44th president of the Linguistic Society of America, died on August 25, 2011, at the age of ninety-six in Madrid, Spain. Nida was born in Oklahoma City on November 11, 1914, and his family moved to Long Beach, California, when he was five years old.

Nida became interested in working as a missionary Bible translator at an early age, and majored in Classics at the University of California, Los Angeles, in order to lay a foundation for understanding the Biblical source languages; he graduated summa cum laude in 1936. That same summer, he trained to become a missionary translator with the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) and shortly thereafter began work on Rarámuri (Tarahumara) in Mexico. His first publication, in an in-house SIL journal (Nida 1937), was a brief account of that language. Nida was forced to return to California in 1937 because of ill health, which changed his focus from doing Bible translation work in the field to training others to do so; he continued to teach for SIL every summer until 1953. He earned a master's degree in New Testament Greek from the University of Southern California in 1939, and his experience at SIL having convinced him of the value of linguistics for missionary translation work, he completed the Ph.D. program in Linguistics at the University of Michigan in 1943, under the direction of Charles Carpenter Fries, Leonard Bloomfield, and Edgar Sturtevant. That same year he was ordained a minister in the Northern Baptist Convention, joined the staff of the American Bible Society (ABS) in New York, and married Althea Lucille Sprague. Althea and Eugene settled in Greenwich, Connecticut, and were together for fifty years until Althea's death in 1993. At ABS, Nida served as Associate Secretary for Versions until 1946 and then as Executive Secretary for Translations until he retired in 1984. He was a delegate to the conference that founded the United Bible Societies (UBS) in 1946, and in 1967 he helped forge an agreement between the UBS and the Vatican to undertake joint Bible translation projects worldwide. In 1970, the UBS appointed him as its Translations Research Coordinator, and throughout the 1970s he chaired the Hebrew Old Testament Text Project. Nida continued to be active in the field for two decades following his retirement. He published a memoir, Fascinated by languages (Nida 2003), and his last scholarly publication (Nida 2004) appeared in an Italian conference proceedings when he was ninety years old. He moved to Green Valley, Arizona, shortly after Althea's death, and then to Brussels, Belgium, where in 1997 he married the translator and interpreter Dr. María Elena Fernandez-Miranda, who survives him. Nida was honored with a festschrift (Black & Smalley 1974), a collection of his papers (Dil 1975), and a tribute to his career as a Bible translator (Stine 2004); he was also the recipient of several honorary doctorates, and in 2001 the ABS established the Nida Institute for Biblical Scholarship in his honor.

Bloomfield had a profound impact on Nida's thinking about language. His Ph.D. dissertation, A synopsis of English syntax (Nida 1943), was a systematic description of English syntax based on Bloomfield's theory of immediate constituents, but it received relatively little attention until SIL published it many years later (Nida 1960). By contrast, his two-volume textbook Morphology: The descriptive analysis of words (Nida 1944), which was designed to teach beginning linguistics students how to do morphological analysis on the basis of Bloomfield's conception of the morpheme as '[a] linguistic form which bears no partial phonetic-semantic resemblance to any other form' (Bloomfield 1933:161), immediately received enthusiastic reviews by Trager (1944), and by Hockett (1944) in Language. Hockett compared Nida's textbook favorably with such standards as Bloomfield 1933 and Bloch & Trager 1942 for teaching would-be linguists HOW to go about discovering the structure of words, and concluded: 'Anyone who is going to carry on linguistic analysis for any purpose should be taught with this book' (Hockett 1944:255).

Nida's textbook dealt with all aspects of morpheme identification and classification. Because of Bloomfield's disparagement of mentalist semantics, most of Nida's contemporaries...

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