Obituary: William Bright

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Oct 23 12:51:12 UTC 2006

>>From the NYTimes,  October 23, 2006

William Bright, 78, Expert in Indigenous Languages, Is Dead

William Bright, an internationally renowned linguist who spent more than
half a century inventorying the vanishing riches of the indigenous
languages of the United States, died on Oct. 15 in Louisville, Colo. He
was 78 and lived in Boulder, Colo. The cause was a brain tumor, said his
daughter, Susie Bright, the well-known writer of erotica. At his death,
Mr. Bright was professor adjoint of linguistics at the University of
Colorado, Boulder. He was also emeritus professor of linguistics and
anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he taught
from 1959 to 1988.

An authority on the native languages and cultures of California, Mr.
Bright was known in particular for his work on Karuk (also spelled Karok),
an American Indian language from the northwest part of the state. Shortly
before his death, in recognition of his efforts to document and preserve
the language, he was made an honorary member of the Karuk tribe, the first
outsider to be so honored. His books include American Indian Linguistics
and Literature (Mouton, 1984); A Coyote Reader (University of California,
1993); 1,500 California Place Names: Their Origin and Meaning (University
of California, 1998);  and Native American Placenames of the United States
(University of Oklahoma, 2004).

Mr. Bright's approach to the study of language was one seldom seen
nowadays. With the ascendance of Noam Chomsky in the late 1950s,
linguistics shifted its focus from documenting language as an artifact of
human culture to analyzing it as a window onto human cognition. But to Mr.
Bright, language was inseparable from its cultural context, which might
include songs, poetry, stories and everyday conversation. And so, lugging
unwieldy recording devices, he continued to make forays into traditional
communities around the world, sitting down with native speakers and
eliciting words, phrases and sentences. Among the languages on which he
worked were Nahuatl, an Aztec language of Mexico; Cakchiquel, of
Guatemala; Luiseo, Ute, Wishram and Yurok, languages of the Western United
States; and Lushai, Kannada, Tamil and Tulu, languages of the Indian

William Oliver Bright was born on Aug. 13, 1928, in Oxnard, Calif. He
received a bachelors degree in linguistics from the University of
California, Berkeley, in 1949. After a stint in Army intelligence, he
earned a doctorate in linguistics from Berkeley in 1955. He began his
fieldwork among the Karuk in 1949. At the time, their language was a
tattered remnant of its former splendor, spoken by just a handful of
elders. Since encounters with Europeans had rarely ended well for the
Karuk, the community had little reason to welcome an outsider. But Bill
Bright was deferential, curious and, at 21, scarcely more than a boy. He
was also visibly homesick. The Karuk grandmothers took him in, baking him
cookies and cakes and sharing their language. They named him
Uhyanapatanvaanich, little word-asker.

In 1957, Mr. Bright published The Karok Language (University of
California), a detailed description of the language and its structure.
Last year, the tribe published a Karuk dictionary, compiled by Mr. Bright
and Susan Gehr. Today, Karuk children learn the language in tribal
schools. Mr. Bright was divorced twice and widowed twice. From his first
marriage, he is survived by his daughter, Susannah (known as Susie), of
Santa Cruz, Calif. Also surviving are his wife, Lise Menn, a professor of
linguistics at the University of Colorado; two stepsons, Stephen Menn of
Montreal and Joseph Menn of Los Angeles; one grandchild; and two

His other books include The Worlds Writing Systems (Oxford University,
1996), which he edited with Peter T. Daniels; and the International
Encyclopedia of Linguistics (Oxford University, 1992), of which he was
editor in chief. From 1966 to 1987, Mr. Bright was the editor of Language,
the fields flagship journal. The professor was also a meticulous reader of
all his daughters manuscripts. He displayed the finished products among
them Susie Brights Sexual State of the Union (Simon & Schuster, 1997) and
Mommys Little Girl:  On Sex, Motherhood, Porn and Cherry Pie (Thunders
Mouth Press, 2003)  proudly on his shelves at home.


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