Isadore Dyen

Isadore Dyen

1913 - 2008

“Isidore Dyen was born on 16th August 1913 in Philadelphia, the youngest of the family of Rabbi Jacob Dyen and his wife Dina (Bryzell). The family’s home language was Yiddish, which therefore became one of Isidore’s mother tongues. His father had hoped 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 in 1932. But Isidore’s interests were elsewhere, and as he commented, he and his father came to an understanding. He was a sceptic about religion though clearly proud of his Jewish heritage and his mode of arguing and reasoning owed much to traditional rabbinic methods.

“His three academic degrees were all obtained from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia: B.A. in 1933; M.A. in 1934; and Ph.D. in 1939, in Indo-European linguistics. He chose to focus on Slavic languages, and was to have gone to Russia in 1939 with his bride Edith (Brenner – d. 1976) to do research there. But the Second World War put an end to that plan. Instead, on the invitation of linguist Leonard Bloomfield, he began his career at Yale University in New Haven. He 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 set out to find speakers of the language from among Malay sailors who had jumped ship and were living illegally in New York. He convinced them he was not an agent of the government and would not report them for deportation. He became fluent in the language as it was spoken and soon was teaching Malay to 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’s cessation, in 1947 and 1949 he carried out field documentation of the languages of the Micronesian islands of Truk and Yap, the first of several research trips to the Pacific, which included a year in Bandung, Indonesia, accompanied by his family (1960-61), as well as later work in the Philippines and New Zealand.

“He served on the faculty at Yale for over 40 years, holding various positions there as director of graduate studies in Indic, Far Eastern and Southeast Asian languages, and became Professor Emeritus in 1984.

“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.

“Dyen’s wish that his Austronesian library be given to the University of the Philippines has been honored. His enormous working collection of drawers of 3×5 cards and slips of paper has found a home with senior linguist Dr. R. David Zorc, who will use them in his own work on subgrouping of the Austronesian languages.”

    From: Margaret Sharpe and Doris Dyen (2009) “Obituary of Isidore Dyen” Language Log

    See also: Obituary: Isidore Dyen LINGUIST List 20.78, Thu Jan 08 2009