The LSA reports with regret the recent death of Wayne O'Neil (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), an LSA member since 1975.  See below for an announcement from O'Neil's colleagues at MIT. 

The Department of Linguistics & Philosophy at MIT is very sad to share that our esteemed and beloved colleague of many decades, Professor Wayne O'Neil, has died. He was chair of the MIT Linguistics program for eleven years (1986-1997) and head of the Department of Linguistics & Philosophy from 1989 to 1997. He guided the department with wisdom, compassion, and skill, longer than any other head. His contributions to the field are marked by the same qualities that he brought to the headship. Aside from a rich and fruitful scholarly life, he and his partner, Professor Maya Honda, worked selflessly to bring linguistics to the wider world, including unstinting work with Native Americans and with students in junior high and high school classrooms. Wherever this duo went, they were met with friendship and gratitude. In his long and fruitful career, Professor O’Neil and his partner and colleague have left behind a host of grateful students and teachers.




Wayne O’Neil: An Appreciation

By David Pippin and Kristin Denham

Thursday March 26, 2020


Almost as soon as there was a field of linguistics, Wayne O’Neil was working to introduce a scientific approach to language in the schools. When he started work on the Oregon Curriculum Project in the sixties, he was the University of Oregon’s “kept linguist.” Later, in the eighties, working at Harvard University's Educational Technology Center, he began a collaboration with his partner of 40 years, Maya Honda, and brought linguistics to the middle school science classroom. Together they worked at the American Indian Language Development Institute, in fifth grade classrooms, with English Language Learners, and more. Today high schools around the country have linguists teaching entire courses devoted to linguistics, and there are so many linguists deployed to schools that he would not have known everyone involved. Most likely, though, they would have heard of him. His death on Sunday, after a battle with cancer, marked nearly sixty years of working to advance the teaching of formal linguistics in the schools.

Wayne’s research interests were varied--second language acquisition, phonology, and language change--but a fair amount of his work in the schools dealt with two topics, plural nouns and question-formation. By working through problem sets and considering the conditions for counterexamples, he presented us with compelling reasons to use language data as the vehicle for the teaching of scientific reasoning: Data are all around us, no fancy lab equipment is necessary, and it gives voice to students who might otherwise be marginalized because of their language backgrounds.

Problem sets he used in the classrooms were both constructed with data gleaned from his travels--as a Fulbright scholar in the Faroe Islands, working with Maya in China, Nicaragua, Brazil, and Australia--and also from the bottom-up. Students in Wayne and Maya’s classes at Wheelock College, where she taught for many years, created problem sets from their heritage languages. Working in the elementary classes in Seattle, Wayne and Maya would solicit data for plural-noun formation problems and gradually tease out the different allomorphs and encourage age-appropriate terms like “whooshies” for sibilants. By asking the class to consider the most parsimonious hypothesis available, the student inquiry approached a more formal linguistics. Working with question-formation in both English and Mandarin, students could also see how languages fit into a sort of typology of question formation.

Even without his tremendous impact as a scholar in the field of linguistics, we would miss him dearly for the humor and kindness he brought to the LSA, at way too early in the morning LiSC meetings, during panels on K-12 issues at the Annual Meeting, and at the many educator conferences he attended without regard for size or prestige. Both he and Maya could be counted on as engaging dinner companions, where he would catch us up on the latest going ons from MIT, where he was a faculty member and Chair of the Department for many years. He was knowledgeable about just about any topic under the sun. Want to know which roads in Iceland are being re-routed because of elves, or Huldufólk? Wayne's your man. Want to mix up a non-Newtonian fluid (oobleck)? Wayne's got that recipe. Need a travel guide? He'd direct you to one of the state books published by the Works Progress Administration, even if many of the tourist spots were long gone.

Wayne was responsive in his communication, corresponding at length with teachers seeking assistance. Many of us who worked with him within the LSA will always remember his incredible generosity. He demonstrated a kindness and curiosity to his junior colleagues that many of us try to emulate in our own careers.

We miss you already, Wayne, but will carry on your good work!