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  • Charles F. Hockett
  • James W. Gair

Charles F. Hockett, known to friends, students, and colleagues as ‘Chas’, died on November 3, 2000, at the age of 84. He was born in Columbus, Ohio, on January 17, 1916, the fourth child of Homer Carey Hockett, who taught American history at the Ohio State University, and Amy Francisco Hockett. He entered Ohio State in 1932 at the age of 16, and in the spring of 1933 he took George M. Bolling’s linguistics course in which the textbook was Leonard Bloomfield’s Language, published that same year. Subsequently he took the only course in anthropology OSU offered at the time, and those experiences set him on the path to his future academic career. He received his B.A. (summa cum laude) and M.A. simultaneously in Ancient History at the age of 20, with a dissertation on the use of the Greek word logos in philosophy through Plato. Years later, he described the introductory section of that work as showing ‘despite some weird use of terms . . . the Bloomfieldian impact’ (Hockett 1977:1). He continued at Yale University, where he studied anthropology and linguistics with Edward Sapir, Franklin Edgerton, George P. Murdock, and Leslie Spier, having as well Morris Swadesh, George L. Trager, and Benjamin Whorf as teachers and associates. He received his Ph.D. in anthropology in 1939, with a dissertation based on his fieldwork in Potawatomi. His paper on Potawatomi syntax was published in Language in that year (Hockett 1939), and the dissertation, in streamlined form, was published as a series in IJAL in 1948 (Hockett 1948a). After a summer of fieldwork in Kickapoo and an autumn in Michocoan, Mexico, he went on to two years of postdoctoral study, including two quarters with Bloomfield at Chicago, followed by a stay at Michigan.

Hockett was drafted into the US Army in February 1942. After basic training in antiaircraft artillery and a few months helping to prepare other recruits for Officer Candidate School, he was transferred to Army Service Forces, where his linguistic capabilities were put to work on Chinese. In late 1942 he accompanied General Stillwell’s officers to their headquarters in Bengal, India, supervising their learning of Chinese while en route. Afterward Hockett was stationed in Washington and then in New York City, where he worked under Major Henry Lee Smith in the dedicated and productive group preparing language-training materials, language guides, and dictionaries for military personnel. This unit included or consulted with a number of the leading linguists of the time, and the effort allowed the application of a Bloomfieldian structural linguistic approach to language teaching on an unprecedented scale. It thus served as a testing ground and laboratory for the effectiveness of that approach. Its materials were later used in many postwar civilian programs, particularly in the less commonly taught languages, and became the model for many subsequent texts. In the course of this work, Hockett, with C. Fang, produced a basic course in spoken Chinese (Hockett 1944) and a guide’s manual for it (Hockett 1945a), as well as a Chinese dictionary (Hockett 1945b) that included an introductory sketch of Chinese notable for its concision and clarity. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1943, and after the Japanese surrender in 1945 was dispatched to Tokyo as a first lieutenant to help train American troops in Japanese. In February 1946 he was separated from the army with a terminal leave promotion to captain. [End Page 600]

After a short association with the American college dictionary, he began his university teaching career in 1946, as an assistant professor of linguistics in charge of Chinese in the newly formed Division of Modern Languages at Cornell, created under the dynamic and enterprising leadership of J. Milton Cowan, who headed it for many years after. This pioneering unit was designed specifically to unite linguistics and language teaching on the university level following the model of the successful wartime effort. The Division, renamed the Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics after Cowan’s retirement, was responsible for basic language teaching for virtually all languages at Cornell, a function that it maintained in a widening number of languages until recently. It also...


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