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Who is Kenneth Pike? I’ve been asked this question frequently, so I thought I would set out a brief introduction, a sketch of one of the men who has had the greatest impact on my thinking. If you would prefer to hear an answer to this question rather than read one, check out the Reformed Forum interview. For those interested, a delightful and personal biography was written about Kenneth Pike by his sister, Eunice: Ken Pike: Scholar and Christian. I draw on that in what follows, along with content from a two-part article I wrote on Kenneth Pike in Westminster Theological Journal

Life and Background

Kenneth L. Pike (1912-2000) was a Christian linguist with a creative mind, a love for the biblical God, and (in his later years) a strange affinity for water polo. He was born and raised in Connecticut, and was steeped in Scripture from the moment of his birth. When he was a child, his mother sang hymns to him and his siblings, and nearly everyday his father read a passage of Scripture to the family, discussed it with them, and then prayed (Pike, 1981, p. 7). Early on in his life, he developed a heart for missions. While attending Gordon College of Theology and Missions (now Gordon College), he became zealous for the spread of the gospel in China with Hudson Taylor’s Chinese Inland Mission (CIM). With considerable struggle, he began studying Mandarin with CIM after his studies at Gordon, and was convinced of God’s use of him in China, which crushed him all the more when CIM told him that they could not use him. Shortly after this disappointment, Pike returned to Gordon College to bolster his knowledge of Greek, and there he learned from a student about a newly founded program seeking to prepare students for Bible translation. It was called “Camp Wycliffe.” In June of 1935, he hitch-hiked from Connecticut to Arkansas to attend the camp, paying a whopping $6 a month for room and board. The goal of Camp Wycliffe (which would later become the Summer Institute of Linguistics), according to its founders (W. Cameron Townsend and Leonard L. Legters), was to train students in linguistics and pioneer living in order to meet the need of Bible translation in Central and South America, a region home to many unknown and unwritten languages and hence unreachable by most mission efforts. The students were to be trained in linguistics, travel to a remote area, learn the language of a particular people, and translate the NT for them. This was the segue into Pike’s long and vibrant relationship with the Mixtec-speaking people of Mesoamerica.

Among the Mixtecs, Pike was not simply learning a new language and growing close to the inhabitants; he was immersed in the Scriptures, telling Bible stories to natives over late-night camp fires, and eventually enlisting their help to translate those stories into Mixtec. Translation itself will bring anyone more intimate knowledge of Scripture, but for Pike, his knowledge of Scripture informed his job of translation on two fronts. On the one side, he was becoming intimately familiar with the words of Scripture by translating the emic expression (see the description of “emic” below) of truth in first-century biblical culture to a corresponding emic expression in twentieth-century Mixtec culture. On the other side, his background knowledge of Scripture was informing his understanding of translation itself. In 1957, long after he had served the Mixtec people, he reflected on translation as it relates to the message of God’s Word: 

The evangelical does not view the Christianizing task as merely a cultural translation. He sees it in part as a cultural task plus an infusion of supernatural power in the individual life. A variety of Christianity which attempts the cultural phases of the task without reliance upon the power emanating from the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ as trustworthy historical events would impress the evangelical as failing to provide the tribes people with the source of supernatural power which not only leads to present cultural values, such as kindness, but also gives eternal life. (Pike, 1957, p. 362)

In other words, his knowledge of the message of Scripture—the transformative power of the resurrected Christ—affected his approach to translation. He was not simply learning more about Scripture by translation; he was learning more about translation by studying and implementing Scripture. 

As he began to publish more regularly, it became apparent that his mind was steeped in Scripture, and his professional life was profoundly shaped by it. His explicitly theological writings ranged from finding God’s direction in one’s own life—a topic on which he was particularly qualified to speak, given his own disappointments with CIM—to advice for intellectuals; from biblical exposition to linguistic critiques grounded in the presupposition of the truth of Scripture. 

Pike’s forte, however, was in linguistics. He worked closely with Edward Sapir at the University of Michigan, where he earned his PhD. He had a tenacious appetite for learning and analyzing new languages, and he is still referenced in circles of English language teaching for his work The Intonation of American English, which he wrote in the hospital while recovering from a broken leg. His magnum opus on language (intimidating both in its content and volume) is Language in Relation to a Unified Theory of the Structure of Human Behavior (1967), but the most accessible exposition of his language theory, tagmemics, is Linguistic Concepts: An Introduction to Tagmemics (1982). I attempt to summarize some of the main features of this theory in the following section.


At the outset, let me just say that it is difficult to summarize Pike’s thought, partly because of its complexity and partly because he was so prolific. I attempt to summarize his language theory in chapter 2 of The Trinity, Language, and Human Behavior. What follows is only a snapshot of what has emerged from his mind. As already noted, the best introduction to Pike’s tagmemic theory (his general view of language) is Linguistic Concepts, so I invite readers to have a look at that.

Language as human behavior. Pike viewed language not as a separate faculty of human beings but as a part or phase of human behavior that was structurally integrated with everything else that we do. Part of his reasoning for taking this position is that there are nonverbal actions that we can substitute for verbal ones: a wave of the hand is equivalent to “Hello.” A shrug of the shoulders means the same as the sentence, “I don’t know.” Other human behaviors can also be analyzed in terms of linguistic categories. There is a grammar not just to language, but to thought and action as well. So, Pike sought to study human behavior as a unified whole, and that meant developing concepts and categories that applied not just to spoken or written language but to every other activity that humans engage in. This daunting task may help readers appreciate the length of his magnum opus.   

Emic and etic viewpoints. Pike started his study of language with persons. He would not start with an abstract system of communication or a theory of symbolic meaning. Rather, he began with people, and people have viewpoints; they have perspectives, ways in which they see the world. On the broadest level, Pike would say that, for any particular event, humans are either insiders or outsiders. The insider view is the emic view (taken from the word “phonemics,” the study of sounds within a given language); the outsider view is the etic view (taken from the word “phonetics,” the study of sounds across languages). Insiders have an intuitive sense of the meanings of behaviors within a context or group. Outsiders do not have access to these meanings, but they tend to notice things that insiders miss. Thus, Pike would say that both viewpoints are complementary. None of us is an insider on every topic, and we can all benefit from the etic observations of others who are not familiar with our context, just as much as outsiders will benefit from our emic understanding of the language or activity in focus.  

Observer perspectives. Beneath these broader viewpoints are three observer perspectives: particlewave, and field. To see the world or a unit of language from the particle perspective is to see it as a static entity with relatively fixed borders. In other words, the particle perspective views language and the world as comprised of “things.” The wave perspective sees the world or a unit of language in process, as something dynamic, in the midst of development. The easiest way to understand this is to view a spoken word as a wave, with margins and a nucleus. The nucleus would be the stressed syllable, and the margins would be the unstressed syllables. Take the word “understanding.” The two unstressed syllables (“under”) lead up to the stressed syllable (“stand”), which is followed by the unstressed ending (“ing”). If you see language and the world as in motion, undergoing change or development, then you are using the wave perspective. Lastly, the field perspective views parts of the world or human language as an interconnected web or matrix. We identify pieces of language and elements in our environment in relation to other pieces of language or elements of the environment. Nothing has meaning in isolation. If you see the world or a chunk of language as part of an interconnected web, comprised of pieces that have meaning in relation to each other, then you are using the field perspective. All three observer perspectives are rooted in a single person, and each perspective is assumed in the others. We might say that each perspective interpenetrates or is in the others. I’ve written an article on how these observer perspectives reflect the Trinity.

Contrast, variation, and distribution. Now, with a perspective (or blend of perspectives) we view units of life and language: a parking space, a conversation, a tree, a sentence, a phrase, a word. Each of these units has what Pike called contrastive-identificational features. That is, they have features that contrast them with other units (negative) and features that set them apart as unique (positive). My computer keyboard, for example, is very different from my desk or my coffee cup. At the same time, the differences between my keyboard and other objects are not only what make my keyboard what it is. There are also positive elements: pressable keys, each one marked with a tiny symbol and serving a set of electronic functions when connected to a computer. Each unit also has variation; each is a unique manifestation of itself. My computer keyboard is slightly more worn today than it was yesterday. While I might say “Good morning” to the person who opens the library each day, my pronunciation of that phrase differs ever so slightly throughout the week. There can be variation without essential change; difference can occur without threatening identity. Lastly, each unit is distributed in a context, a web of other events, or a larger chunk of discourse. My “Good morning” occurs in a physical environment, and it is surrounded on both sides by other chunks of discourse, perhaps other greetings or answers to particular questions I’m asked later that morning. There is always a distribution, a context, for units of human behavior. In language, that distribution is set within the confines of grammar, phonology, and reference. This leads to the next triad. But before we move on, note that every unit of life and language has features of contrast, variation, and distribution simultaneously. I link these three elements to the Trinity in chapter 3 of The Trinity, Language, and Human Behavior.     

Grammar, phonology, and referenceLanguage, for Pike, was also comprised of three interlocking hierarchies: grammar, phonology, and reference. Each of these hierarchies was a different structuring of the same linguistic material, and each overlapped with the others. Take the response, “I’m doing well.” The word “I’m” is a contraction of “I” and “am,” serving as the subject and part of the verb (“am doing”). This is part of the grammar of the sentence. But “I’m” could be stressed in this sentence, or the word “well” might be stressed (phonology), each expressing a slightly different meaning (reference). In other words, the difference in pronunciation leads to a difference in the referent or real-world meaning. “I’m doing well” suggests that someone else is not doing so well. “I’m doing well” suggests happiness or enthusiasm or perhaps even surprise. Each of these areas is hierarchically structured, with larger units above smaller ones. Again, I link these three hierarchies to the Trinity in chapter 3 of my book, following the path set out by Vern Poythress in his In the Beginning Was the Word (chapter 32). 

The importance of context. Lastly, Pike’s language theory was focused on the centrality of context. A “tagmeme” (the term identifying his language theory) was to him simply “a unit in context.” Tagmemes occurred in all of the hierarchies above (grammar, phonology, and reference), and they occurred in human actions as well (which Pike called “actemes”). In his Linguistic Concepts, Pike drew attention to what he called “form-meaning composites” (arguing that form and meaning always go together), the universe of discourse (in which every unit occurs), and the idea that sharing is prerequisite to change. Again, I explain these and link them to trinitarian theology in chapter 3 of my book. 

We can scarcely do justice to the nuance and depth of Pike’s thought in an article such as this, but here is what we have covered. For Pike, language is a phase of human behavior that must be understood and studied in relation to all that we do. People have emic (insider) or etic (outsider) viewpoints as they partake in various activities and engage with different groups of people throughout the day. The viewpoint we have as an insider can be complemented by the viewpoints of outsiders, and vice versa. People also use observer perspectives (particle, wave, and field) whenever they view a part of the world or a piece of language. These perspectives overlap and presuppose each other. They reveal the volume of insight we can have into language and human behavior. They also eschew reductionistic approaches to language and meaning. When we examine a smaller chunk of language or human behavior, we find features of contrast, variation, and distribution. These features also presuppose each other and are interlocking. In language, these chunks or units occur within the hierarchies of grammar, phonology, and reference, which also interlock and presuppose each other. Central to all of this is the importance of context and how it informs our interpretation of language and the world around us. 


Now, how does Pike’s thought help us today? As you may already know, I believe Pike’s language theory is strikingly trinitarian (see chapter 3 of The Trinity, Language, and Human Behavior). He also draws attention to the centrality of language in human life, and the interconnectivity between language and the rest of human behavior. I believe that this is also the approach that Scripture takes. In the Bible, there is an integral relationship between thought, language, and action. While we can distinguish these “behaviors,” we cannot separate them from one another. A man speaks out of the overflow of his heart (Luke 6:45). We use language to classify or label the motives of a person (Prov. 24:8). God’s word judges not just our words or actions, but our thoughts and motives (Heb. 4:12). And we must love others not only with language but with actions (1 John 3:18). In short, thought, language, and action (which cover basically everything that we do) cannot be structurally separated. I believe Pike understood this, and he developed a theory of language that accounted for it.

This article has turned out to be longer than I expected, but I hope it has given you a snapshot of a remarkable Christian scholar. If you’re fascinated with Pike’s thought, I recommend the following books and articles for further reading.

Brend, Ruth M., ed. Kenneth L. Pike: Selected Writings to Commemorate the 60th Birthday of Kenneth Lee Pike. The Hague: Mouton, 1972.

Hibbs, Pierce Taylor. The Trinity, Language, and Human Behavior: A Reformed Exposition of the Language Theory of Kenneth L. Pike. Reformed Academic Dissertations. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2018.

_____. “Where Person Meets Word: Part 1—Personalism in the Language Theory of Kenneth L. Pike.” Westminster Theological Journal 77, no. 2 (Fall 2015): 355–377. 

_____. “Where Person Meets Word: Part 2—The Convergence of Personalism and Scripture in the Language Theory of Kenneth L. Pike.” Westminster Theological Journal 78, no. 1 (Spring 2016): 117–34.

Pike, Kenneth L. Linguistic Concepts: An Introduction to Tagmemics. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1982.

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

Poythress, Vern S. In the Beginning Was the Word: Language–A God-Centered Approach. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009.

Works Cited

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

Kenneth L. Pike, “Language and Life 3: A Training Device for Translation Theory and
Practice.” Bibliotheca Sacra 114, no. 456 (October 1957): 362.

Spread the word about good words 🙂

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