William Bright (1928-2006)
William Bright, an internationally renowned linguist who spent more than half a century inventorying the riches of the indigenous languages of the United States, died on Oct. 15 in Louisville, Colorado. He was 78 and lived in Boulder, Colorado. 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 1950’s, 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; Luiseño, Ute, Wishram and Yurok, languages of the Western United States; and Lushai, Kannada, Tamil and Tulu, languages of the Indian subcontinent.
William Oliver Bright was born on Aug. 13, 1928, in Oxnard, Calif. He received a bachelor’s 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 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 Uhyanapatánvaanich, "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 step-grandchildren.
His other books include The World’s 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 field’s flagship journal.
Texts associated with William Bright
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