In memoriam, William Davies

August 20, 2017 - 7:00pm


It is with profound sadness that we note the passing of Professor William Davies on August 18, 2017. After joining the faculty in 1986, Bill was at the heart of departmental life, serving for many years as Departmental Executive Officer, Director of Graduate Studies, Director of English as a Second Language Programs for thirteen years between 1990 and 2005, and as a mentor and advisor for countless PhD, MA, and BA students in the department. As ESL Director, Bill ensured that ESL Programs’ faculty and staff were treated as respected professionals and as full members of the Department, and that linguistics graduate students pursuing a focus in Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL) were provided teaching experience with structured support and supervision by ESL faculty—just one example, among many, of his strong commitment to student success.

Bill was a highly respected theoretical syntactician and a preeminent scholar of Austronesian languages, focusing extensively on the syntax of raising and control, and on the syntax and morphology of Javanese and Madurese. He received his PhD from the University of California, San Diego in 1981, writing his dissertation on Choctaw clause structure. Beginning with Choctaw, and continuing with other languages, much of Bill's research united his interests and training in syntactic theory with his passion for language documentation and preservation. From the early 1990s, his attraction to the languages of Indonesia drew him first to Javanese, and then to Madurese, a language that he worked on for some twenty years. His work on various linguistic phenomena in Madurese culminated in 2010 in the De Gruyter Mouton A Grammar of Madurese, the first (and only) comprehensive grammar of this language of 14 million speakers. Bill’s theoretical work traversed a broad range of phenomena, including wh-questions, reflexives and reciprocals, antipassives, causatives, and (especially) raising and control. However, his theoretical work was, invariably, coupled with efforts to give back to the people who so graciously allowed him into their space to do his research – studying the grammar of the Madurese while, at the same time, preserving and rendering accessible the rapidly disappearing folk story traditions for their next generation.   

Bill taught and conducted research both at Cornell University, where he held a Mellon postdoctoral fellowship, and at California State University, Sacramento, prior to joining the faculty at Iowa. In addition, he served on the faculty of two Linguistic Society of America Summer Institutes, at the Ohio State University and the University of Chicago, and co-coordinated (with Stan Dubinsky) National Science Foundation-funded workshops at two additional Summer Institutes. Bill made innumerable invited and conference presentations of his research in Indonesia, along with many other international, national, and local venues. He published extensively, both in singly-authored works and in collaborative work with students and colleagues—including, with long-time collaborator Stan Dubinsky, an edited volume on the theory of grammatical functions, two influential volumes on control and raising, and a forthcoming textbook on language conflict and language rights. His research was funded by a number of prestigious grants, including a National Science Foundation grant supporting his work on the grammar of Madurese, and, more recently, grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the NSF, and the Smithsonian Institution, as well as the American Institute for Indonesian Studies and the Fulbright Scholar program, for his project documenting the language of the Baduy Dalam. Much of Bill's recent work circled back to his early roots in anthropological linguistics, uniting his interests in culture and language preservation with careful descriptive work, theoretical analyses, and digital audio and video recordings and transcriptions of both Madurese and Baduy folk stories.

During his time on the Iowa faculty, Bill, a gifted and award-winning teacher, particularly enjoyed teaching Linguistic Field Methods and Linguistic Structures— two classes which allowed him to share his passion for Austronesian linguistics with generations of students, and which ultimately spawned many PhD dissertation and qualifying paper topics. To his PhD students, Bill was a tireless mentor and an impeccable role model; he was deeply proud of their accomplishments and cherished this work.

Bill was gentle, warm, compassionate, and funny (and occasionally (okay, often) sarcastic); friends, students, and colleagues will remember his invaluable contributions to the Department of Linguistics and to the University of Iowa, of course, but more so his fundamental decency, his sense of fairness, and his unceasing advocacy for his students and for the field of linguistics. He will be deeply missed.