Alton Lewis ("Pete") Becker (April 6, 1932 - November 15, 2011) was a professor of linguistics and Southeast Asian studies at the University of Michigan.
Who was a professor of linguistics and Southeast Asian studies at the University of Michigan for many years, died on November 15 of complications from Parkinson's disease. He was 79. Alton, who was also known as Pete, was born on April 6, 1932, to Marguerite and Alton Becker in Monroe, MI. In high school, he had his own jazz band and made frequent trips to Detroit to hear famous bands of the 1940s like Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, and Dave Brubeck. Also while in high school, he began canoeing the AuSable River in Michigan. His love of canoeing continued throughout his life and led him to seek out rivers that were more and more northerly. His final trips were on the northern Ontario rivers the Mississaga, the Spanish, and the Missinaibi. While an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, he spent two summers working as a smoke jumper for the forestry service in Idaho. He married his fellow student, Judith Omans, in 1953, graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of Michigan in 1954, and went to the University of Connecticut where he simultaneously taught and earned his M.A. degree in 1956. He then took a teaching position at Ripon College, Wisconsin. During these early years, in addition to his passion for canoeing, he became a serious birder. Up until the time when his Parkinson's disease forced him to stop, he regularly tramped the woodlands of Washtenaw county in the early dawn. In 1958, Pete was offered a position teaching English at Kambawza College in Taunggi, Burma. He and Judith, with their son Matthew, moved to Burma, and their son Andrew was born there. As a result of his study of the Burmese language, his interests turned from English literature to linguistics. He returned to the University of Michigan in 1961, where he simultaneously taught in the Engineering English Department and pursued a PhD. in Linguistics, which he received in 1967. In 1969, he went back to Southeast Asia with his family, which now included a daughter, Margaret, to take a two-year position teaching linguistics at what is now the Universitas Negeri Malang, in Malang, East Java, Indonesia. Along with his mentor, Kenneth Pike, and his colleague Richard Young, he co-authored the book, Rhetoric: Discovery and Change (1970), which has remained an influential book in the field of rhetoric. His long stays in Burma and Indonesia, as well as subsequent shorter stays in Malaysia and Sri Lanka led to a rare understanding of the particularity of different languages and of how old texts are reshaped into present contexts. His book, Beyond Translation: Essays Toward a Modern Philology (1995), a collection of many of his seminal essays, received the University of Michigan Press Book Award for the best book published that year. The following is a quote from Beyond Translation. "And why describe languages--that is, languaging in different societies? I think the answer...is to learn to converse with those we have difficulty conversing with. Whether they are our own neighbors and family or people halfway around the world, the same kinds of differences are involved, I think, and learning about one teaches about the other. Recognizing the dramatic differences I confront in speaking to a Balinese prepares me to recognize the more subtle differences I confront in speaking to my wife and children, and it teaches me to respect them, not out of some abstract moral principle but as the practical first step in having my own differences respected." Nancy Florida, a professor of Linguistics at the University of Michigan, said "The lifelong work of A.L. (Pete) Becker, Professor Emeritus of Linguistics, has been transformative not only for Southeast Asian Studies, but also in the fields of linguistics and translations studies. His sensitive scholarship on language will continue to challenge us to explore the ways that languages produce meaning and affect realities. Becker's theoretical meditations remind us that language is not transparent, that meaning is not waiting to be discovered underneath the word, but rather that it is to be felt across the grain of language's surface." The Association for Asian Studies recently inaugurated the A.L. Becker Southeast Asian Literary Translations Prize, which will be awarded to an outstanding English translation of a work of Southeast Asia literature. Alton Becker taught in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Michigan until his retirement in 1985. His most popular course was "Language and Culture," which attracted hundreds of students every year. He also taught Old Javanese, Burmese, Thai, and courses in linguistics and anthropology. He enjoyed a year-long residency at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton in 1982, and was a member of the Michigan Society of Fellows. After his retirement, he accepted temporary positions at Princeton University and Yale. A conference organized by colleagues and students in honor of his work was held in Eugene, Oregon, in May, 1996. He also co-authored articles on Javanese gamelan with his wife, the ethnomusicologist Judith Becker, and contributed an essay to the book, "The Huron River: Voices from the Watershed," edited by John Knott and Keith Taylor. In addition his wife, Judith, Alton Becker is survived by his children, Matthew of Huntington Beach, California, Andrew of Blacksburg, Virginia and Margaret of New York City; his daughters-in-law, Katherine Becker and Trudy Becker; and his grandchildren, Sophia Becker, Adrian Becker, Daniel Becker, Timothy Becker, Matthew Becker, Trudy Becker, Ramona Petrini and Joseph Petrini; his brother and sister-in-law, Richard and Holly Becker; and numerous cousins, nieces and nephews.A memorial service will be held on Saturday, January 14, 2012, at the Friends Meetinghouse, 1420 Hill Street, Ann Arbor, at 2 p.m.