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  • In Memoriam, Isidore Dyen, 1913–2008
  • Robert Blust

Isidore Dyen, emeritus professor of linguistics at Yale University and the undisputed doyen of Austronesian comparative linguistics from roughly the mid 1940s to the early 1970s, died on the morning of December 14, 2008, in his own bed at Evans Park senior accommodation in Newton, Massachusetts, at the age of 95. As he neared the end, he was surrounded by his son Mark, his daughter Doris, their spouses, five grandchildren, and his faithful late-life intermittent companion Margaret Sharpe, who flew to Boston from Australia when it became apparent that the time left to him was rapidly slipping away. Those who have only a casual familiarity with the history of Austronesian linguistics over the past 60 years might be tempted to say that Dyen's passing marks the end of an era, but in reality that era ended over three decades earlier.1

Isidore Dyen (Hebrew name Yitzhak, and "Iz" to his friends) was born August 16, 1913, in Philadelphia, the youngest son of Rabbi Jacob Dyen and his wife Dina (Bryzell), who were themselves immigrants from Kiev in the Ukraine. The Dyen family's home language was Yiddish, which gave the young Isidore an early exposure to a multilingual environment. The Sharpe-Dyen obituary mentions that "his father had hoped that 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." After his undergraduate training, however, Dyen's skepticism about religion and his growing intellectual interests led him toward graduate school and the scientific study of language, although we are told that "his mode of arguing and reasoning owed much to traditional rabbinic methods."

Dyen received his BA in 1933, MA in 1934, and PhD in 1939, all from the University of Pennsylvania, writing his doctoral dissertation on The Sanskrit indeclinables of the Hindu grammarians and lexicographers under the supervision of Professor Norman Brown. Like many linguists who entered the job market at that time, he found that his professional skills were wanted in the war effort, and Wolff (2008) comments that he "became interested in Austronesian (languages) after Leonard Bloomfield assigned him to prepare the Malay section of the U.S. Army pedagogical series during World War II." This resulted in his two-volume Spoken Malay (1943), an investment of time and effort that he followed up nearly a quarter-century later in the mimeographed four-volume Beginning Indonesian (1967a), and A descriptive Indonesian grammar: Preliminary edition [End Page 488] (1967b). Writing pedagogical grammars, however, was not how Dyen was destined to make his reputation in linguistics. He had been trained in Indo-European comparative linguistics, and he clearly felt the need to extend the Comparative Method to the study of the large and far-flung Austronesian (AN) language family. His introduction to AN linguistics was through Malay, but given the circumstances under which this came about he must have been exposed to Bloomfield's Tagalog texts with grammatical analysis (1917) very early in his professional career. Moreover, as he himself notes (Dyen 1965b:ix), he was part of a group of scholars from Yale University who were involved in the Tri-Institutional Coordinated Investigation of Micronesian Anthropology, arriving in Truk (now Chuuk) in July 1947.2 While in Chuuk, Dyen stayed on the island of Romonum for three and one-half months, and then spent another month on Yap before returning to Yale late in 1947. This exposure to a wide range of typologically and genetically disparate AN languages during the first decade following his completion of the PhD prepared him well for his work as a comparativist.

Most of Dyen's published output is concentrated in two areas: the reconstruction of Proto-Austronesian (PAN) phonology, and linguistic subgrouping. The latter research area led in turn to a longstanding involvement with lexicostatistical theory and method, as will be detailed below. Less well-represented areas in his list of publications that are nonetheless important are pedagogical and descriptive grammars (Spoken Malay, Beginning Indonesian, and A descriptive Indonesian grammar: Preliminary edition, as mentioned earlier; and A...


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