This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

55 years ago

Henry Lee Smith, linguist

  • Henry Lee Smith. Photo: UB ARCHIVES

Published: October 27, 2011

“It’s the most fascinating thing in the world,” Henry Lee Smith said about the study of linguistics. Language is “what makes us human beings.”

In 1956, UB established the combined Department of Linguistics and Anthropology—the first such department in the country—and recruited Henry Lee Smith to head the new program.

After receiving his PhD from Princeton and lecturing at Barnard, Columbia, and Brown, Smith headed the Language Section, Information and Education Division of the U.S. Army from 1942 to 1946.

Prior to the war, there were no foreign language materials for the bulk of the military and civilian personnel, and Smith, along with linguists he recruited, produced language guides, phrase books and military and general-purpose dictionaries in many different languages. Under Smith’s direction, the linguists also developed what came to be known as the Army method of language instruction—later adopted by colleges and universities—emphasizing the use of phonograph records on which a native speaker recited the foreign words and allowed a pause for repetition by the student.

Smith founded the State Department’s School of Language and Linguistics in 1946, and served as the school’s director prior to coming to UB.

But it was for his national radio program—“Where Are You From?”—that Smith was best known. Launched in 1940, the program featured Smith asking members of the studio audience to pronounce such shibboleths as Mary, marry, merry. Smith would then—with 80 percent accuracy—identify the dialect or dialects to which that person had been exposed, usually pegging it exactly, even within a few miles. For someone from Manhattan, Brooklyn or the Bronx, he could locate them within a few blocks of their homes.

Smith and George L. Trager, who also came to UB in 1956, authored several books on language. At the time of his death in 1972, Smith was engaged in research in historical linguistics and semology, the relationship of syntactic patterns to meaning. Numerous commercial recordings of his lectures on language teaching were issued after Smith’s death.

The combined Department of Linguistics and Anthropology became the Department of Anthropology in 1965-66. A program in linguistics was created in 1968-69, and since 1969-70 there has been a separate Department of Linguistics.

The University Archives hold two collections of the papers of Henry Lee Smith.

John Edens, University Archives