William Bright, 78, Expert in Indigenous Languages, Is Dead
By MARGALIT FOX
New York Times
October 23, 2006
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 1950’s,
linguistics shifted its focus from documenting language as an
artifact of human culture to analyzing it as a window onto human
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
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 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
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 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.
The professor was also a meticulous reader of all his daughter’s
manuscripts. He displayed the finished products — among them “Susie
Bright’s Sexual State of the Union” (Simon & Schuster, 1997) and
“Mommy’s Little Girl: On Sex, Motherhood, Porn and Cherry
Pie” (Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2003) — proudly on his shelves at home._______________________________________________
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