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Alton L. (Pete) Becker (April 6, 1932 – November 15, 2011) was an American linguist known for his studies of Burmese grammar and other Southeast Asian languages, including Malaysian, Javanese and Kawi. He was a professor of linguistics at the University of Michigan from 1968 to 1986. Becker published studies in philology, rhetoric, and the ethnography of communication. He was coauthor with Richard E. Young and Kenneth L. Pike of the widely influential college writing textbook, Rhetoric: Discovery and Change, which introduced a Rogerian framework for communication and rhetoric studies as an alternative to the Aristotelian approach.[1] To recognize his significant contributions and publications of translations from Southeast Asian languages to English, the Association for Asian Studies awards the annual A. L. Becker Prize to honor his significant contributions.[2]

Alton Lewis (Pete) Becker
Alton L. Becker portrait.jpg
BornApril 6, 1932 (1932-04-06)
DiedNovember 15, 2011 (2011-11-16)
ResidenceAnn Arbor, Michigan
Alma materUniversity of Michigan
Known forTranslation, Philology, Rhetoric, Southeast Asian languages, Ethnography of Communication, Anthropology of Language
Scientific career
FieldsLinguistics, Philology, Anthropology
InstitutionsKambawza College (Taunggi, Burma), University of Connecticut, Ripon College, University of Michigan
ThesisA Generative Description of the English Subject Tagmemes (1967)
Doctoral advisorKenneth Pike



Becker was born in Monroe, Michigan. In Southeast Michigan, he often attended jazz performances in Detroit, and he also began a lifelong love of canoeing. He studied English literature at the University of Michigan, where he completed a Bachelor's degree in 1954. He married Judith Omans in 1953. He later attended the University of Connecticut, where earned a master's degree in 1956 and also taught.[3] From 1958 to 1961, he lived and worked in Taunggyi, Burma. He moved to Burma with his wife Judith and their son Matthew, and their son Andrew was born there.[3] In Burma, he taught English at Kambawza College under the Fulbright program.[4] He credited this experience in Burma and his study of Burmese for his change in scholarly interests from English literature to linguistics, particularly his work in language and culture, the ethnography of communication, and for his studies of Southeast Asian languages and ancient texts.[3] He returned to Southeast Asia in 1969, when he held a two-year position teaching linguistics at the Universitas Negeri Malang, in Malang, Indonesia.[3]

Academic careerEdit

Becker taught at the University of Michigan from 1961 to 1986. From 1961 to 1968, prior to receiving the PhD, he taught English at Michigan while a graduate student under the direction of Kenneth L. Pike. He joined the Department of Linguistics at Michigan as assistant professor in 1968 and was named full professor in 1974. His course "Language and Culture" was particularly popular.[4] At Michigan, Becker performed as a puppeteer with the University Gamelan.[5] Becker's writing about the Javanese wayang (shadow puppet play) was described as "brilliant."[6] In his most well-known essay on the epistemology of the shadow play, he notes that the "neatly divided" visual aspects, musical aspects, and verbal aspects of the performance allow it to be appreciated by many, and Becker's essay makes the play relatable to "outsider" (non-Indonesian) audiences:

An outsider can watch a performance with real aesthetic involvement without knowing the language. The musical accompaniment by the gamelan is appealingly rich and complex. In many ways, a shadowplay can be understood as a silent movie, with a theatre orchestra playing in the pit. Foreigners watch Javanese shadowplays that way with real aesthetic satisfaction.[7]

At the same time, connoisseurs can appreciate the linguistic registers of the dalang (puppeteer) who uses both ancient and modern languages, as well as Javanese and Indonesian, which allows for the plays to simultaneously "speak in the past" and "speak in the present."[7] Becker's essay is the first to examine Indonesian thought and "text-building" through a lens of language and culture as epistemology.[6]

Becker received numerous distinctions that recognized his academic contributions. Becker was Director of the Michigan Center for South and Southeast Asian Studies from 1972 to 1975.[4] He was a senior fellow of the Michigan Society of Fellows from 1975 to 1978[8] and a scholar in residence at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study in 1981–1982.[9] He received the University of Michigan Press Book Award in 1995 for this book, recognized as the best book published in 1995 by the press.[10] In 1996, a linguistics conference titled "The Notion of Person: A Conference to Honor the Work of Alton L. Becker" was held in his honor.[11][12] His publications on semiotics, rhetoric, and the ethnography of communication have been widely influential in linguistics.[13] Upon his death, the Association for Asian Studies established the AAS Southeast Asia Council (SEAC) A. L. Becker Southeast Asian Literature in Translation Prize in Becker's memory.[2]

Scholarly worksEdit

Books and articlesEdit

  • Becker, Alton L.; Pike, Kenneth L. (April 1964). "Progressive Neutralization in Dimensions of Navaho Stem Matrices". International Journal of American Linguistics. 30 (2). pp. 144–154.
  • Young, R. E.; Becker, Alton L.; Pike, Kenneth L. (1970). Rhetoric: Discovery and Change. New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World. ISBN 0155768956.
  • Becker, Alton L. (1975). "A Linguistic Image of Nature: The Burmese Numerative Classifier System". Linguistics. 13 (165). pp. 109–122.
  • Becker, Alton L. (1979), Aram Yengoyan and Alton L. Becker (ed.), Text-Building, Epistemology, and Aesthetics in the Javanese Shadow Theatre, Norwood, NJ: ABLEX.
  • Yengoyan, Aram; Becker, Alton L., eds. (1979). The Imagination of Reality: Essays in Southeast Asian Coherence Systems. Norwood, NJ: ABLEX. ISBN 9780893910211. OCLC 5101468.
  • Becker, Alton L. (1982). Prof. J. W. M. Verhaar, S. J.; Kridalaksana, Harimurti; Moelions, Anton M. (eds.). Binding Wild Words: Cohesion in Old Javanese Prose. Jakarta: Penerbit Bhratara Karya Aksara.
  • Becker, Alton L., ed. (1989). Writing on the Tongue. Michigan papers on South and Southeast Asia no. 33. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Center for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Michigan.
  • Becker, Alton L. (1993). W. Foley (ed.). The Elusive Figures of Burmese Grammar. Trends in Linguistics, Studies and Monographs 69. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Becker, Alton L. (1995). Beyond Translation: Essays toward a Modern Philology. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press. ISBN 9780472105731.

Secondary textsEdit



  1. ^ Young, R. E.; Becker, Alton L.; Pike, Kenneth L. (1970). Rhetoric: Discovery and Change. New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World.
  2. ^ a b Association for Asian Studies, A. L. Becker Prize Recipients, archived from the original on 2015-09-23
  3. ^ a b c d, accessed January 2014
  4. ^ a b c, accessed January 2014
  5. ^ University of Michigan Gamelan Ensemble Concert Programs: 1967–2005,, accessed February 2014
  6. ^ a b Jennifer Lindsay, Between Tongues: Translation And/Of/In Performance in Asia (Singapore University Press, 2006), p. 141.
  7. ^ a b Becker, Alton L. (1979), Aram Yengoyan and Alton L. Becker (ed.), Text-Building, Epistemology, and Aesthetics in the Javanese Shadow Theatre, Norwood, NJ: ABLEX.
  8. ^ "Senior Fellows," Michigan Society of Fellows
  9. ^ "Community of Scholars Profile," Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, archived from the original on 2014-03-04
  10. ^ Citation from University of Michigan Press, accessed January 2014
  11. ^ Conference Announcement: The Notion of a Person
  12. ^ Conference Schedule February 1996: Linguistics & Related Topics
  13. ^ List of publications from SIL, accessed January 2014