Linguist Gragg takes helm of Oriental InstituteBy William Harms
Gene Gragg, a linguist and expert on the early linguistic history of the ancient Near East, has been appointed Director of the Oriental Institute.
Gragg, Professor in Linguistics, Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations and the Oriental Institute since 1970, succeeds William Sumner, who has retired after serving as Director since 1989. Gragg began his duties Oct. 1.
Gragg takes the helm in the midst of a major renovation of the Oriental Institute. "It's really an exciting time to be director," he said. "I'm looking forward to the completion of our building project and to the expansion of our research activities."
The institute has raised more than $9 million toward its $10.1 million goal for building improvements. A new wing under construction will create space for archaeological laboratories and expansion of the archives. The institute is also remodeling museum galleries as part of the project. The new structure will be finished early next year.
Gragg, who received his Ph.D. from Chicago in 1966, has conducted field work in Ethiopia, where he studied the Oromo language. The language is widely spoken, but has a limited written tradition.
"I was fortunate to be there when the opportunities for studying Oromo opened in 1975," said Gragg. "Up until then the government of Ethiopia had discouraged interest in the language because it was not an official language of the country."
Although scholars were permitted to study for the year that Gragg was in the field, the door quickly closed again when a revolution led to decreased access for Western scholars.
During the time he was in Ethiopia, Gragg worked with speakers of Oromo to build a vocabulary of the language.
"What I would do is ask people to tell me stories, or to describe things they did. That way I could learn more words and understand how they were used," he said. "I usually did my work by taking notes rather than by tape recording people because I find tape recordings can be misleading and give a false sense of security. Watching people as they speak a language, and interacting with them, is a much more effective way of doing research."
Gragg's work led to the publication of the Concise Oromo Dictionary.
His work in Oromo is part of a broader study of Afroasiatic languages, a group of language families spoken in western Asia and north Africa. Studying these languages helps scholars understand the relationship and spread of peoples and cultures in the area, he said.
"I became interested in studying ancient languages through studying Hebrew," Gragg said. "Once I began to see how studying a language helped in understanding history, I became fascinated and expanded my work backward in time."
He is currently working with the latest electronic data-processing technology on the Afroasiatic Index, a comparative historical database of languages of the Afroasiatic group with an emphasis on the Cushitic, Semitic and Egyptian sub-families.
Gragg received his B.A. from Loyola University of Chicago and also studied at West Baden College before coming to Chicago to complete his graduate work.