Ken Pike: From Shyness to Scholastic Honors

Dan Graves, MSL

Ken Pike: From Shyness to Scholastic Honors

Are you nervous and shy? Think you can't do anything for the Lord? On this day, October 26, 1973, the University of Chicago awarded Ken Pike an honorary doctorate degree. His linguistic work had enabled non-experts to systematically crack foreign languages. That was a measure of success. But if he had given in to early fears and failures, how different his story would have been!

In 1928, when Ken was sixteen, his father contracted an infection and nearly died. The boy, who was working at a supermarket at the time, promised God he would become a minister if only his Dad lived. When his Dad got better, Ken knew he must keep his promise.

At that time he was insecure in his social relations. He did not even have the courage to write to colleges. His mother did it for him. He was accepted at Gordon College and worked in the kitchen to pay his way. Soon he became more at ease with social interaction and was even given charge of the kitchen crew. However, when he applied for the China Inland Mission, he was turned down. Too nervous, said the board. He also failed their linguistics test.

Unsure what to do, he took a job spraying trees against gypsy moths, trying to build up his weak body. He stuck to the job, although he was terrified of heights and could only inch his way up trees with a lot of prayer.

Wycliffe Mission offered a phonetic class. Intrigued, Pike enrolled and was fascinated. Cameron Townsend, Wycliffe leader, saw something in the boy no one else did. He asked Pike to be ready to teach phonetics next year. Ken studied Mexican languages. He longed to share the gospel with Mexicans. But flea bites that wouldn't heal tormented his body. Forced to leave the mountains, he happened upon a copy of Language by the famed anthropological linguist Edward Sapir. This formed his thinking. Next summer he taught at the Summer Institute of Linguistics.

Cam asked Ken to write a book on phonetics. Halfheartedly, Ken agreed, but did not keep his promise. Then he snapped a leg. Examining his conscience while recovering, he realized he had not kept his word to Cam. Despite a case of Malaria, he buckled down, writing and testing 125 pages on phonetics. His obedience in writing the book became a crucial step in his eventual success: success that led to the honorary degree this day in Chicago.


  1. "Christian Linguist Nominated for Nobel Prize." Charisma (December, 1982) p. 12.
  2. Contemporary Authors, Vol 120. Detroit, Michigan: Gale Research, 1981.
  3. Pike, Eunice V. Ken Pike; scholar and Christian. Dallas, Texas: Summer Institute of Linguistics, 1981.
  4. Pike, Kenneth. Phonemics; a technique for reducing languages to writing. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan, 1947.
  5. ---------------. Stir, Change, Create; poems and essays in creative mood for concerned students. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1967.
  6. "Pike, Kenneth L(ee)." Encyclopedia Britannica.
  7. Wallace, Ethel E. and Mary A. Bennett. Two Thousand Tongues to Go. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1959.
  8. Who's Who in America, 1999.

Last updated April, 2007.

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