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Professor Wayne O’Neil, linguist and advocate for linguistics in education, dies at 88

Longtime MIT professor and department head also participated in many efforts in support of peace and social justice.
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Of Wayne O'Neill, his longtime colleague Noam Chomsky wrote, “Wayne’s intellectual and professional contributions have been immense. For me personally, and for many others, it is even overshadowed by the privilege of having had such a wonderful friend for many years.”
Of Wayne O'Neill, his longtime colleague Noam Chomsky wrote, “Wayne’s intellectual and professional contributions have been immense. For me personally, and for many others, it is even overshadowed by the privilege of having had such a wonderful friend for many years.”
Photo: Stan Honda

MIT professor of linguistics Wayne O’Neil died on March 22 at his home in Somerville, Massachusetts. The cause of death was cancer. He was 88 years old.

O’Neil’s work focused on syntactic and phonological theory, on the role of linguistics in the school curriculum, and on second-language acquisition, both the theory and the relevance of the latter to bilingual education and to the revitalization of indigenous languages.

An MIT faculty member for more than 50 years, O’Neil served as chair of the literature faculty from 1969 to 1975, chair of the linguistics program from 1986 to 1997, and head of the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy from 1989 to 1997. From 1996 to 2002, he also co-directed the MIT-Japan Science and Technology Mind Articulation Project. Prior to coming to MIT, O’Neil taught at Harvard University, the University of Oregon, and Duke University.

“Wayne was self-effacing in leadership, but we cannot forget the importance and efficacy of his leading roles.” says Alec Marantz PhD ’81, a former head of MIT’s Department of Linguistics and Philosophy who is now a professor of linguistics and psychology at New York University.

Marantz worked closely with O’Neil on the Mind Articulation Project, a joint research project with the Japan Science and Technology Agency that centered on unifying approaches to language and thought — including those from linguistics and cognitive science. “This multiyear research endeavor brought considerable resources to MIT linguistics to shore up graduate funding and gave birth to a new brand of the cognitive neuroscience of language grounded in linguistic theory and comfortably situated in linguistics departments,” Marantz says. “Wayne brought together researchers from disciplines that would otherwise not have talked to each other, with lasting impact on the shape of language research in Japan and elsewhere.”


Born on Dec. 22, 1931, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, O’Neil attended the University of Wisconsin for his undergraduate and graduate education, earning his PhD in language and literature in 1960 after a stint with the U.S. Army in Germany. While in graduate school, he took a course in Old English and discovered the discipline of structural linguistics, which offered the possibility of systematically explaining how the structure of a language changes over time. Thus began an abiding diachronic interest in Germanic languages. In 1961, he was a Fulbright Scholar in Iceland. There he pursued research on the structure of Icelandic and Faroese.

In 1963, O’Neil became intrigued by the work of MIT faculty member Noam Chomsky, who that year gave a series of lectures on generative grammar at the University of Oregon. The following year, O’Neil took a year’s leave from Oregon to spend it at MIT as a visiting scientist. For O’Neil, who had been schooled in American structuralism, it was an exciting time to be immersed in MIT linguistics. In a tribute to Institute Professor Emeritus Chomsky on the occasion of his 90th birthday, O’Neil wrote: “The academic year 1964-1965 … was like no other I had ever experienced, but have experienced year after year ever since.”

O’Neil was a world traveler. In 1973, he took a semester off and, with his then-partner Lucy Horwitz, bicycled 7,000 miles across northern Africa, through the Middle East and Central Asia, and across Equatorial Africa. He believed that he came to understand his own world as well as other places through travel.

Areas of research

O’Neil’s early research focused on Old Norse, Icelandic, and Faroese poetry. He translated the Faroese poet Janus Djurhuus’ famous “Grímur Kamban” as well as the Old Norse “The Lay of Thrym,” one of the best-known poems of the Poetic Edda. But his work ranged far beyond translation, extending to diachronic studies from a generative perspective.

In 1985, he co-authored (with Samuel Jay Keyser) “Rule Generalization and Optionality in Language Change” (Studies in Generative Grammar 23. Dordrecht: Foris Publications). He wrote about phonological change in the Vespasian Psalter, an 8th century Old English psalter famous for the oldest interlinear gloss of portions of the Christian Bible, and about vowel gradation and so-called breaking in Old English phonology.

Gradually, however, O’Neil’s focus shifted to what one friend and colleague, the late MIT linguistics professor Ken Hale, called “responsive linguistics.” This shift in focus was explained by O’Neil in an essay in Walter Feinberg’s “Equality and Social Policy” (University of Illinois Press, 1978): “Once it is seen that [human]kind is to be studied as part of the natural universe and in just the same ways the rest of the universe is studied, it is then possible to expand outward to an examination of the world that surrounds us. Language, because it is a mirror of the mind and a window on the world, is, I suggest, the best and easiest place to begin such studies. It opens up the rest.”

Generative linguistics in China

In the early 1980s, O’Neil traveled to China to lecture on generative grammar at Beijing Normal University, the Beijing and Shanghai Foreign Languages Institutes, and at Shandong University, which named him an honorary professor of linguistics in 1984. His book, “Yingyu Zhuanhuan Yufa” [“English Transformational Grammar”] (Beijing Normal University Press, 1981), the Chinese translation of his initial lectures, was likely the first scholarly work on generative linguistics to be widely disseminated in China; the initial printing was 65,000 copies.

The connections that O’Neil established in China during this period led to a generation of Chinese students pursuing graduate study in linguistics at MIT and other institutions.

Linguistics and the teaching of science

Throughout his career, O’Neil sought to introduce linguistics into the curriculum of K-12 schools; he believed that inquiry into and knowledge of language should have a prominent place in young people’s science education. Working with departmental colleagues Jay Keyser, Richard Larson (now at Stonybrook University), and Hale, along with Carol Chomsky of Harvard University and others, he pursued the idea that investigating the patterns and structures of language is a captivating and accessible way to develop scientific thinking; data are readily available, and the research requires no equipment other than a careful mind.

In the 1960s, while at the University of Oregon, O’Neil directed the language/grammar component of The Oregon Curriculum Study Center, part of the U.S. Office of Education’s Project English, one of the post-Sputnik efforts to reform the school curriculum that included PSSC (Physical Science Study Committee) Physics, an MIT-led effort. O’Neil worked closely with teachers, providing them with linguistics instruction and involving them in the development and implementation of an inquiry-directed curriculum based on transformational grammar. He also recorded linguistics lectures for educational television that shared the curriculum title “Kernels and Transformations.”

In the mid-1980s, he and his colleague and partner Maya Honda joined a research team at Harvard’s Educational Technology Center that had as its goal improving the teaching of the scientific method in junior high and high school science classes. In their technology-free part of the curriculum, O’Neil and Honda integrated collaborative teaching and learning with problem sets about linguistic phenomena to motivate students to “think linguistically” — comparing, contrasting, and constructing explanations for linguistic data. They used this same methodology with education students at Wheelock College in Boston, where they co-taught a course on linguistics and language acquisition for more than 20 years. Their book, “Thinking Linguistically: A Scientific Approach to Language” (Wiley-Blackwell, 2008) grew out of this work.

O’Neil’s curriculum endeavors led to a number of conference presentations and publications that in turn attracted a new cohort of linguists and teachers to this work. Among those drawn to the effort was Kristin Denham, who is now a professor of linguistics at Western Washington University, a leader in the integration of linguistic knowledge into K-12 teaching, and a member of the Linguistic Society of America’s initiative in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. Denham says O’Neil’s work in linguistics education has had a lasting impact.

“The egalitarian vision he had from the early 1960s collaborating with teachers has endured, and those who learned from him will carry it forward. Wayne’s contributions, including his patience and persistence, will continue to inspire the work of the Linguistic Society of America’s Language in the School Curriculum Committee and the society’s efforts to establish Advanced Placement Linguistics,” she says.

David Pippin, a teacher at the Young Achievers Science and Math Pilot School in Boston, began a lasting collaboration with O’Neil in 1999. Pippin was a middle school teacher in Seattle, Washington, at the time and contacted O’Neil and Honda for resources for teaching linguistics.

“In our work on developing scientific thinking through linguistic inquiry, Wayne stressed the importance of parsimony. The one area, however, where he was not very parsimonious was his unflagging devotion to my development as a linguist and friend, and for that I am forever grateful,” Pippin says.

“Responsive” linguistics

Kai von Fintel, professor of linguistics and the current section head at MIT, says, “Wayne was a scholar, a teacher, and a leader. He personified our department’s engagement not just with the scientific questions of language and the mind, but also the social and political context. We miss him very much.”

As an example of O’Neil’s leadership in social and political engagement, in the 1980s, in response to the U.S.-backed contra war against Nicaragua, he, along with Hale and Honda, co-founded and led Linguists for Nicaragua (LFN), an international solidarity group of linguists that provided material aid and linguistic support to the country’s nascent bilingual education programs. From 1985 to 1992, LFN ran workshops for teachers in which they investigated their own languages, including Nicaraguan English and the indigenous languages of Miskitu, Mayangna, Ulwa, and Rama, which were not yet well documented, and also created literacy materials for use in primary schools.

In remarks made when O’Neil stepped down from his position as department head, Hale said, “I admire Wayne’s linguistics, a large part of which belongs to the category of ‘responsive’ linguistics, in the sense that it is sensitive to the concerns of communities whose linguistic heritage is embattled and in great peril of extinction or suppression.”

O’Neil took an active interest in Native American communities’ efforts to maintain and revitalize their endangered languages, following the lead of Hale, who was a scholar of and an activist for indigenous languages.

At the end of Hale’s life, when he was too ill to pursue his own responsive linguistics, he encouraged O’Neil to go to the Southwest in his place. Thus, O’Neil and Honda began working in the summers with Native American teachers at the American Indian Language Development Institute at the University of Arizona and at the Navajo Language Academy. They wrote "Understanding First and Second Language Acquisition" (Indigenous Language Institute, 2004) for Native American teachers, many of whom teach their indigenous language as a second language.

For his achievements and contributions to the field of linguistics, O’Neil was named a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2013.

A commitment to peace and social justice

Throughout his life, O’Neil participated in many efforts in support of peace and social justice, perhaps the earliest being a golf caddy strike that he led when he was a teenager. He was involved with many local and national activist organizations, among them: Resist, People’s Coalition for Peace and Justice, the Radical Teacher editorial collective, Dorchester People for Peace, and Veterans for Peace.

At MIT, he was active in the New University Conference and anti-war efforts during the Vietnam War. Later, he was involved with the MIT Socialist Group and with the Central American Pledge of Resistance’s Emma Goldman Affinity Group at MIT, an effort to resist U.S. aggression against Nicaragua and El Salvador.

A unique honor

The Department of Linguistics and Philosophy took an unusual step to recognize O’Neil at a Visiting Committee meeting on March 4. For the first time in its history, the department passed a resolution honoring one of its faculty. The resolution paid tribute to O’Neil’s “extraordinary achievements” and read, in part:

“Professor Wayne O’Neil 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.”

Noam Chomsky, on learning of O’Neil’s death, offered these thoughts:

“It’s not easy to reflect on the passing of a very close friend and colleague for over half a century, and to revive memories of Wayne until the last days — vibrant, lively, dedicated, stimulating, and a rock of stability. That was always true in our common and very difficult activist engagements, in our intense professional work and lives at MIT, and not least in personal life, even the opportunity for my wife Valéria and me to enjoy Wayne’s talents as a great cook.

“Wayne’s intellectual and professional contributions have been immense. For me personally, and for many others, it is even overshadowed by the privilege of having had such a wonderful friend for many years.”

O’Neil is survived by his partner, Amy Maya Honda; his oldest brother, Gerald O’Neil of Sterling Heights, Michigan; and his children from his first marriage, to Donna (Carr) Francesconi, and their spouses — Scott O’Neil and Neil Kraft; Patrick O’Neil and Jennifer Courtney; and Elizabeth O’Neil and Frank Henderson.

He also leaves his grandchildren — Dylan Smith and husband Zach Smith, Marley Kraft, and Morrison Kraft — and his great-grandson, Hendrix Smith. Donations in O’Neil’s memory may be made to the American Friends Service Committee (, a peace and social justice organization that he long supported.

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