As a Yale University linguist, Maria Babyonyshev knew better than most how words are formed. That expertise proved crucial after a Hells Angels motorcyclist crashed into her car during Motorcycle Week in New Hampshire in 2006, seriously injuring her.
Babyonyshev, who suffered broken bones, head trauma and strokes in the crash, had to relearn to talk. She was able to make a strong recovery in speaking because she knew how language works, her husband, Ted Walls, said Wednesday.
"It was amazing," Walls said. "Because of her background in linguistics, she was actually able to make a stunning recovery. People wouldn't realize how hard she was working."
Walls said his wife, who had moved to the United States from the Soviet Union and had studied in Massachusetts, died March 18 at their home in North Kingstown, R.I., of complications from the 2006 Motorcycle Week accident. There were 10 deaths that year during the annual event.
Walls said his wife would recover words through a series of basic questions she asked and answers he gave her. If she wanted to eat, for example, she might start with "category?" and then narrow the choices as Walls gave her options. After six to nine months, she was able to string together sentences, he said, and eventually she spoke so well it was difficult to tell she had the impairment.
Babyonyshev left her native Soviet Union after her father got into trouble with Soviet authorities for a book he was writing, Walls said. She attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and even returned to Yale as an associate research scientist after the accident, he said.
"This is a person who really was a bright star in the Russian community in the Boston area," Walls said.
MIT professor Kenneth Wexler said Babyonyshev made important contributions in the linguistics field, such as showing how children have particular difficulty with structures of certain kinds of verbs. That research could prove useful for pinpointing genetic causes and understanding autism and other language disorders, he said.
"She was quite well known," Wexler said. "I think her work was penetrating, creative, motivated by a deep curiosity about what's in the human mind."