In Memoriam: Isidore Dyen, Was a Specialist in Austronesian Languages

Isidore Dyen, an emeritus professor of linguistics at Yale who is known for his seminal work on Austronesian languages and Proto-Austronesian (the ancestral language of languages from Indonesia to Madagascar and across the Pacific Ocean), died on Dec. 14.

Dyen served on the Yale faculty for over 40 years, and held various positions at the University, including director of graduate studies in Indic and Far Eastern languages, and of South Asian languages. He was named a full professor in 1948 and retired in 1984.

Born on Aug. 16, 1913, in Philadelphia, Dyen received his B.A. (1933), M.A. (1934) and Ph.D. (1939) degrees from the University of Pennsylvania. His plan to focus on Slavic languages changed around the time of World War II, when he joined the Yale faculty on the invitation of linguist Leonard Bloomfield and was offered exemption from U.S. military service if he would learn a Southeast Asian language and devise lessons for the troops. He chose Malay and soon became fluent in the spoken language, teaching soldiers bound for the Asian front.

The closing of the opportunity to do research in Europe and the choice of Malay for the war effort led Dyen to work in the field which would occupy him for the rest of his life - the study and classification of the widely dispersed Austronesian languages, often referred to earlier as Malayo-Polynesian languages. Following the war, in 1947 and 1949, Dyen carried out field documentation of the languages of the Micronesian islands of Truk and Yap. In subsequent years, he made research trips to Indonesia, the Philippines and New Zealand. Alone and in collaboration with other scholars, he also explored applying the methods of lexicostatistics and glottochronology to Austronesian languages and to other language groups, such as Indo-European and Amerindian.

Describing himself as a linguistic scientist, Dyen was a fierce proponent of the use of exacting scientific method and analysis, and he excoriated colleagues who he thought fell short of that standard. During a conference in Barcelona in the mid-1960s, the writer Thor Heyerdahl, author of “Kon-tiki,” advanced the hypothesis that the dispersal of seafaring peoples in the Pacific had been east to west, and that the peoples of the Pacific Islands had come from South America. Dyen publicly took the famous author to task, citing linguistic evidence that the dispersal had to have been west to east. What began as a confrontation developed into a friendship between the two men.

Following his retirement from Yale, Dyen moved to Honolulu, where he became an adjunct professor of linguistics at the University of Hawaii and continued his research. His colleague, Australian linguist Margaret Sharpe, helped him catalog his library and transferred his Proto-Austronesian etyma to computer files. In late 1996, he was presented with a Festschrift, edited by Bernd Nothofer. He regularly participated in scholarly institutes and symposia in the Philippines, Australia, Tokyo and elsewhere, presenting his findings in papers and issuing publications up through 2007. He delivered his final conference paper in 2006 in Palawan, the Philippines, at the age of 93.

In accordance with his wishes, Dyen’s Austronesian library has been given to the University of the Philippines. Other re­search materials have been given to R. David Zorc, who will use them in his own work on subgrouping the Austronesian languages.

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