David Watters, RIP

Tom Givon tgivon at uoregon.edu
Thu Jun 11 17:12:50 UTC 2009


It is with profound sorrow that I pass on the news that David Watters, a 
well known linguist of Tibeto-Burman and Nepal, has
departed unexpectedly on May 18th. I first met David when he enrolled in 
our PhD program in Oregon in the early 1990s. It rapidly
became clear he was not an ordinary student. He didn't need to be 
taught, he already knew, intuitively, all I had to teach him, and
had much to teach his teachers. Before he came to us, David had already 
spent a lifetime in Nepal, working with the Kham people,
whose existence and unique language he was the first to note and 
described. He and his wife Nancy raised their two boys in the
  village, where David's commitment to the people and their language and 
culture became legendary. When the Maoist guerillas
  established their early base in the Kham region, they seized  David 
and threatened to execute him as a foreign spy. He was saved
  by the determined intervention of the Kham villagers, who insisted 
that this stranger was not to be harmed, for he belonged to them.

  When a few years ago the new Nepalese government concluded a peace 
treaty with the Maoists, David was honored as the true
  mediator of the treaty, and was seated at the dais during the peace 
ceremony, bedecked in colorful native regalia and turban and
  looking, to judge by the framed picture hung on my study wall, like a 
serene if slightly bewildered pasha. About 10 years ago,
David hosted me for a Himalayas hike in western Nepal. It was an 
experience of a lifetime, not only because of the incredible
  terrain and  the linguistic diversity of  rural people, but  most of 
all listening to David's stories of a lifetime of adventures in.Nepal.

David was a talented, profound, theoretically-aware natural-born 
linguist. In the group that worked  with us on Tolowa Athabaskan
  in Oregon in the early 1990s, he was a beacon of  descriptive common 
sense. His monumental grammar of Kham, stemming
from his Oregon dissertation, remain a benchmark of linguistic 
description.In the last ten years, David dedicated his time, increasingly,
  to the cause of  Nepalese linguistics, teaching and training local 
linguists at Tribhuvan university in Kathmandu, editing a
  monumental encyclopedia of Nepalese linguistics, and forging ahead 
with new descriptive projects. Linguistics of Nepal and
  the Himalayas have lost a unique colleague, mentor and friend.

David was raised near the Mojave desert town of Barstow, California, 
along the railroad tracks and old Highway 66. He was
a lifelong member of SIL, something many academics consider three 
strikes against you. But even in SIL, he stood out for
his unwaivering commitment to the cause of 'his' people, the Kham, their 
language, culture and material well being. Indeed,
this commitment to the indigenous often put him on a collision course 
with both the royal Nepalese government and the SIL
establishment.While a devout Christian, David never lost sight of the 
beauty  and legitimacy of local cultures and religions, and
of the need--indeed our overriding obligation--to cherish preserve them.

We will miss you, David. Rest in peace.

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