In Memoriam: Rulon S. Wells III, Renowned Linguist and Philosopher

Rulon S. Wells III, professor emeritus of linguistics and philosophy, died on May 3 in Salt Lake City at the age of 90.

Wells taught at the institution for over 44 years, offering courses in logic, philosophy of language and symbolism, history of philosophy and linguistics and contemporary philosophy.

“He was acknowledged as a formidable polymath by his colleagues at Yale and he was always able to assist them in clearly formulating the parameters of any problem they presented to him,” says Stanley Insler, the Edward E. Salisbury Professor of Sanskrit & Comparative Philology at Yale.

Wells received his B.A from the University of Utah in 1939, and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1941 and 1942 respectively. Like many young linguists during World War II, Wells was recruited by the Armed Services. He worked first for the Office of Naval Research, producing a monograph on the matrix method in linguistics, and then for the Army Specialized Training, teaching Japanese and Bengali at the University of Pennsylvania to future operatives in the war zones.

He joined the Yale faculty in philosophy in 1945 and was appointed professor of linguistics and philosophy in 1962.

After his arrival at Yale, Wells emerged as one of the leading linguists of the country, setting solid and critical standards for future linguistic research in a series of seminal articles that included “The Pitch Phonemes of English,” “Immediate Constituents,” “De Saussure’s System of Linguistics,” “Automatic Alternation” and “Meaning and Use.” For his unique contributions to the field, Wells was elected president of the Linguistic Society of America in 1976.

Parallel to his researches in linguistics, Wells also wrote extensively on logic, metaphysics, epistemology and semantics - considering the latter more closely allied with philosophical issues than with linguistic ones. The mind of 19th-century logician Charles S. Peirce held a special fascination for Wells, and he explored Peirce’s ideas in a number of studies. In recognition of these, he became president of the Charles S. Peirce Society in 1973.

He was also a co-founder, with fellow Yale philosophy professor Robert S. Brumbaugh, of the Plato Microfilm Project, which began in 1957. The goal of the project was to microfilm the 260 extant manuscripts in Greek prior to 1600 that contain Plato’s texts. Finally completed in 1990, The Plato Microfilm Project now allows a researcher to compare variant readings in critical passages of Plato in order to explore differences in meaning.

Noting that Wells’ family says he enjoyed taking household objects apart, driven by the curiosity to see how things were put together and how they worked, Insler notes: “This attitude or approach is emblematic of how Wells studied problems in linguistics or philosophy. He disassembled the data, examined the relationships of the components and proposed compelling explanations of how these relationships in turn formed an interactive and functional structure. Penetrating and inventive minds like his are rare, and those of us who have known and worked with him, regret the passing of a great man.”

Wells was predeceased by his wife of 63 years, Virginia, by just one day. He is survived by his son, Rulon S. (Sy) Wells IV and his wife, Marsha; by his other son, David Bennett Wells; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.