Mary Haas bigraphy, stories - American linguist; studied historical linguistics, North American languages, Thai

Mary Haas : biography

January 12, 1910 - May 17, 1996

Mary Rosamund Haas (January 12, 1910 – May 17, 1996) was an American linguist who specialized in North American Indian languages, Thai, and historical linguistics.

Early life

Haas attended high school in Richmond, Indiana, and later Earlham College.

Early work in linguistics

At the University of Chicago she undertook graduate work on comparative philology. It was at Chicago that Haas began to study under Edward Sapir, whom she would follow to Yale. She began a long career in linguistic fieldwork at that time, studying various languages during the summer months. The languages that she studied over the ten-year period from 1931 to 1941 included Nitinat, Tunica, Natchez, Creek, Koasati, Choctaw, Alabama, and Hichiti. Her first published paper, A Visit to the Other World, a Nitinat Text, a collaboration with Morris Swadesh (to whom she would later be married for a time), was published in 1933.

She went on to complete her Ph.D. in linguistics from Yale University in 1935 with a dissertation entitled A Grammar of the Tunica Language. (Tunica was a language once spoken in what is now Louisiana.) Haas worked with the last fluent speaker of Tunica, Sesostrie Youchigant, producing extensive texts and vocabularies. She received the Ph.D at the age of 25.

Shortly afterwards, she conducted fieldwork with the last two speakers of the Natchez language in Oklahoma, Watt Sam and Nancy Raven, resulting in extensive unpublished field notes that constitute the most reliable source of information on the language. Shortly after this, she conducted extensive fieldwork on the Creek language as well, and was the first modern linguist to collect extensive texts in the language. Most of her notes on Creek and Natchez remain unpublished, though they have begun to be used by contemporary linguists.

Role in teaching

Haas was noted for her dedication to teaching linguistics, and to the role of the linguist in language instruction. Her student Karl V. Teeter pointed out in his obituary of Haas that she trained more Americanist linguists than her former instructors Edward Sapir and Franz Boas combined: she supervised fieldwork in Americanist linguistics by more than 100 Ph.D. students. She was a founder and director of the Survey of California Indian Languages, in this capacity she advised nearly fifty dissertations, including those of many linguists who would go on to be influential in the field, including William Bright (Karok), William Shipley (Maidu), Robert Oswalt (Kashaya), Karl Teeter (Wiyot), Margaret Langdon (Diegueño), Sally McLendon (Eastern Pomo), Victor Golla (Hupa), Marc Okrand (Mutsun), Kenneth Whistler (Proto-Wintun), William Jacobsen (Washo), and others.

Work on Thai

During World War II, the study and teaching of Southeast Asian languages was considered by the Allies to be important to the war effort, so under the auspices of the Army Specialized Training Program at the University of California at Berkeley, Haas developed a program to teach the Thai language. Her authoritative Thai-English Students' Dictionary, published in 1964, is still in use.

Haas was appointed to a permanent position at the University of California, Berkeley Department of Oriental Languages (an appointment she attributed to Peter A. Boodberg, whom she described as "ahead of his time in the way he treated women scholars—a scholar was a scholar in his book").

She served as President of the Linguistic Society of America in 1963. She received honorary doctorates from Northwestern University in 1975, the University of Chicago in 1976, Earlham College, 1980, and Ohio State University in 1980.

She died on May 17, 1996 in Alameda County, California, aged 86.

Living octopus

Living octopus

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