Pike, Kenneth Lee (1912-2000)

Linguist and Bible translator

kpikeBorn in Connecticut in a Presbyterian family, Pike’s career dates from 1935, when he began to translate the New Testament into Mixtec, a language of Mexico, and soon became a leader of the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL). His Ph.D. in linguistics (university of Michigan, 1942), his translation work, his teaching linguistics to prospective and active Bible translators at SIL training programs, and his wide-ranging research led to important discoveries about language that have strongly influenced missionary linguistics. He taught linguistics part-time at the University of Michigan from 1948 to 1977 and traveled worldwide to consult with Bible translators and others on linguistic problems, holding seminars, and lecturing, a practice he continued in retirement. Pike’s earliest work was on the sound structures of languages and included books on phonetics, the linguistic analysis of sound systems, tone languages, and English intonation. He then developed “tagmemics,” an extensive theory of language and its relation to culture. He also wrote scores of papers on linguistic phenomena he found in different parts of the world, as well as poetry and prose expressions of his life and faith. Later he studied philosophy, searching for ways to inject his Christian understanding and linguistic insights into that field. Much of Pike’s research and theoretical work as been done to meet the needs of translators, part of its stimulus coming out of the linguistic problems he and others were finding. A second motive has been to give SIL workers credibility with scholars and government officials through producing his own theoretically insightful and descriptively sound scholarly work, and stimulating colleagues to do the same. Pike’s wife, Evelyn (Griset), has been a close collaborator in much of his later work. Eunice Victoria Pike, his sister, was one of the first two women Bible translators with SIL and made useful linguistic contributions as well.

William A. Smalley, “Pike, Kenneth Lee,” in Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, ed. Gerald H. Anderson (New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 1998), 537.

This article is reprinted from Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, Macmillan Reference USA, copyright © 1998 Gerald H. Anderson, by permission of Macmillan Reference USA, New York, NY. All rights reserved.



Pike, Kenneth L. Axioms and Procedures for Reconstructions in Comparative Linguistics; An Experimental Syllabus. Glendale, Calif: Summer Institute of Linguistics, 1957.

_____. The Intonation of American English. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1945.

_____. Language in Relation to a Unified Theory of the Structure of Human Behavior. The Hague: Mouton, 1967.

_____. Linguistic Concepts: An Introduction to Tagmemics. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982.

_____. Mark My Words. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971.

_____. On Describing Languages. Lisse: Peter de Ridder Press, 1975.

_____. Phonemics, a Technique for Reducing Languages to Writing. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1947.

_____. Phonetics, A Critical Analysis of Phonetic Theory and a Technic for the Practical Description of Sounds. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1943.

_____. Stir, Change, Create; [Poems and Essays in Contemporary Mood for Concerned Students]. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967.

_____. Tagmemic and Matrix Linguistics Applied to Selected African Languages. Norman: Summer Institute of Linguistics, University of Oklahoma, 1970.

_____. Talk, Thought, and Thing: The Emic Road Toward Conscious Knowledge. Dallas: Summer Institute of Linguistics, 1993.

_____. Tone Languages; A Technique for Determining the Number and Type of Pitch Contrasts in a Language, with Studies in Tonemic Substitution and Fusion. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1948.

_____. With Heart and Mind: A Personal Synthesis of Scholarship and Devotion. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962.

Pike, Kenneth L., and Eunice V. Pike. Live Issues in Descriptive Linguistics. Santa Ana, Calif: Summer Institute of Linguistics, 1967.

Pike, Kenneth L., and Evelyn G. Pike. Grammatical Analysis. Dallas, TX: Summer Institute of Linguistics, 1977.

_____. Text and Tagmeme. Norwood, N.J.: Ablex Pub. Corp, 1983.

Pike, Kenneth L., and Kurt R. Jankowsky. The Mystery of Culture Contacts, Historical Reconstruction, and Text Analysis: An Emic Approach. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1996.


Brend, Ruth Margaret. Kenneth Lee Pike Bibliography. Bloomington, Ind: Eurolingua, Eurasian Linguistic Association, 1987.

Pike, Eunice V. Ken Pike, Scholar and Christian. Dallas, Tex: Summer Institute of Linguistics, 1981.

Tribute to Kenneth L. Pike, Nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize and the Nobel Prize for Literature. Lake Bluff, Ill: Jupiter Press, 1983.


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