Ken Hale was a linguist's linguist: he was a polyglot who combined an extraordinary language learning ability with exceptional clarity and insight in linguistic analysis, humanity and respectfulness. Over 40 years ago Hale documented around 70 Australian Indigenous languages. Too many of these languages are no longer spoken, and the tapes, grammars and accurate transcriptions and dictionaries that Hale made are now invaluable records. He also leaves a special legacy in those language communities: throughout his career, Hale sought to obtain training in linguistics for speakers of local languages so they could study the language themselves and gain control of its destiny.
Hale was born in Evanston, Illinois, on 15 August 1934. He grew up on his parents' ranch near Canelo in southern Arizona, where the family moved when he was six, and never lost his attachment to the southwest and rural way of life. Overcoming characteristic modesty, he came to acknowledge that he did have an extraordinary linguistic gift, comparing it to an unusual musical talent. Linguists around the world share `Ken Hale stories' which highlight some situation which showed quick and accurate acquisition or memory, a flash of insight, or where he was taken to be a fellow native speaker of, say, Japanese, Warlpiri, or Dutch. It was not uncommon for the context to be away from academia, such as winning an eisteddfod prize for his Gaelic public speaking.
Hale entered graduate study in linguistics at the University of Indiana, Bloomington, gaining his MA in 1958 (with the thesis `Class II Prefixes in Navajo') and in early 1959 his PhD with the thesis `A Papago Grammar', drawing on his knowledge, gained in his teens, of these two very different languages of the US southwest. His thesis adviser was Carl Voegelin who had been an associate of the great American linguist Edward Sapir; Carl and Florence Voegelin founded the Archives of the Languages of the World at the University of Indiana.
Hale first came to Australia in January 1959 with his wife and first son (born 1957), funded by a US National Science Foundation grant administered through the University of Sydney. With guidance from the sole linguist there in those days, Arthur Capell, Hale applied himself for two years to Voegelin's instruction that he document Australian languages for the Archives. Hale began at Alice Springs, with Luritja, Arrernte, Alyawarr, and Warlpiri; those people assigned him to the Japanangka subsection. In these two years he documented at least the basic morphology and core vocabulary of around 70 languages, and made a more intensive study of many of these, notably varieties of Arrernte (Aranda), Warlpiri, Lardil (of Mornington Island, Gulf of Carpentaria), Ngarluma (at Roebourne), northern NT languages Kunwinyku, Mara, Garrwa, various Wik dialects and Linngithigh (on western Cape York Peninsula), and Djabugay (near Cairns).
In March-April 1961 he teamed up with Geoff O'Grady from Sydney University and the pair documented some 26 languages in a two-month survey from Port Augusta around the coast to Broome; in the NT Gulf country he teamed up with La Mont (Monty) West, a fellow student from Indiana University; on Mornington Island he worked alongside Stephen Wurm. Analysing the data back in the United States, Hale in 1961 coined the term `Pama-Nyungan', now generally applied to name the most numerous (and geographically extensive) classificatory grouping of Australian languages, the outline of which he published in 1966 (with Geoff O'Grady and the Voegelins).
Hale's first teaching job was in 1961-64 in the new Anthropology Department established by Joseph B. Casagrande at the University of Illinois, Urbana. In the summer of 1963 Hale (at Urbana) and O'Grady (at nearby Bloomington) worked in parallel on historical reconstruction from their Australian material, Hale on Paman languages and O'Grady on the Ngayarda languages. The Hales spent the summer of 1964 with the O'Gradys at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, where Ken taught in the summer session; the Hales then moved to the University of Arizona, Tucson, for 1964-66. …