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Perspectives Details
Published:  September 9, 2008

Author Details
Author:  Ouragora Staff
The Ouragora staff collaborated to compose this perspective.
Robert E. Longacre Humbles His Company
by Ouragora Staff

Robert E. Longacre is a linguist, translator, consultant, professor, husband and father.

Robert E. Longacre humbles his company. His reputation, embodied simply by an austere but gracious demeanor, conveys a heightened understanding of the world and its people before he speaks a word of his story. Dr. Longacre found a noble craft, dedicated his life to it, and in turn his craft shaped this remarkable oral history. This is his story, in his voice: a compelling, wholly unconventional linguist, translator, and academic, a father, husband and servant of Christ and the Word1.

Bob and Gwen met at Houghton College in New York in the forties. Planning to become a preacher, Bob attended and graduated from Faith Seminary in Pennsylvania. A speech impediment (successfully treated many years later), and acute interest in language, directed Bob to the written word and eventually the Summer Institute of Linguistics. Newlywed and “the greenest pair ever let loose across the border,” the Longacres settled with the Trique people2 in remote, southern Mexico. They were true pioneers: the village was accessible only by foot or animal, living was rough, and the people were not particularly interested3 in a foreign presence or message. While he documented their language, Bob learned the Trique mythology and a bit of their worldview4, witnessed the community change as Western and Trique cultures overlapped, and he discusses the difficulties involved in living between two different worldviews5. While working on the Trique New Testament translation, Bob worked all over the world. He taught summer courses at the University of Oklahoma, held workshops and conferences for linguists stationed across the globe, and published volumes on research both thriving and dying languages. In the sixties, after nearly twenty years of work, Bob completed and dedicated the Trique translation.

Dr. Longacre explored and documented unknown territory for the world’s linguistic community, starting with the Trique tonal language6. He documented their five emic levels of tone, the first language for which that number of levels was demonstrated. In the fifties Bob received a PhD in Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania under Zellig Harris. He did the first serious historical study of the vast Otomanguean language phylum, of which Trique is a part. He adopted the Tagmemics model of language, and modified Kenneth Pike’s approach to syntax, grammar, and discourse. Although this was in the hey day of the transformational generative model developed by Noam Chomsky, Bob contributed significantly to the field of applied linguistics by enabling literally thousands of linguists to discover the structure, and deal with the mysteries, of many languages. Bob and Gwen moved to the International Linguistics Center, where Bob received an appointment to the University of Texas at Arlington, and is now Professor Emeritus. Gwen, Bob, and a U.T.A. colleague, recently returned7 to the Trique people to observe the tonal language using today’s computer software; the computer data confirmed that Longacre’s observations and orthography, developed with pen and pencil nearly fifty years ago, are correct. While they were initially received with distrust and suspicion, today’s Trique welcome them as family: “I never thought I’d see the day when a Trique woman would bid me goodbye with tears in her eyes,” said Gwen of their final visit.

The Longacres are six strong: Bob and Gwen reared four “citizens of the world:” Roberta, Bill, Stephan, and David. Each child was affected in different ways by their various cultural immersions and had to make the difficult adjustment to life in their all but foreign homeland, America8; but their family and purpose remained steadfast through a life of change and remote travel. While Dr. Longacre labored, Gwen9 was (and remains) a bedrock, both in the field and at home, for her children and husband. Her patience, compassion, kind humor, and absolute devotion to her family serve as glue and binding for this story’s pages.

This story is a testament to Dr. Longacre’s only words of guidance10 to us: “Find something worth doing and do it with your whole heart… as you give yourself to it, it will shape you and make you a better person – give yourself to it.” Such words carry farther when the speaker understands the burden s/he is passing on: it is our time to do those good acts to which greater people, with broader shoulders, devoted themselves and now set down before us.

Note: Selections of this biography are adapted from Colin R. Murphy's "Notes on Longacre."