LINGUIST List 22.4399

Sat Nov 05 2011

All: Obituary: Melissa Bowerman

Editor for this issue: Elyssa Winzeler <>

        1.     Eve Clark, Dan Slobin , Obituary: Melissa Bowerman

Message 1: Obituary: Melissa Bowerman
Date: 03-Nov-2011
From: Eve Clark, Dan Slobin <>
Subject: Obituary: Melissa Bowerman
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Dear friends and colleagues,

It's with great personal sadness that I announce the death of MelissaBowerman, on 31 October 2011, in Nijmegen, The Netherlands.

For the past forty years Melissa Bowerman has been a central force in thefield of child language development, contributing influential data and theoryon the relations between language and cognition in both children andadults. She was one of the first to look closely at what children's errorscould reveal about semantic development and published classic studies ofher own children's causative verbs and prepositional choices in locativeconstructions. What she discovered from her analyses was that childrenextract systematic but quite abstract patterns in the semantic structure ofthe language being acquired. Moreover, some errors emerge rather late,after a period of apparently correct usage. This strongly suggested thatchildren don't come to language with ready-made meanings to attach toword-forms. Rather, they have to discover those patterns first and then putthem to use.

Bowerman was always interdisciplinary in her work: she drew on findingsfrom developmental psychology, cognitive and linguistic anthropology, andlinguistics. She was a pioneer in the use of experimental and ethnographicdata, across a range of languages, as she examined how languageshapes both cognitive and linguistic development in the young child, andhow different languages subtly influence adult categorization of such spatialrelations as containment and support.

She was an innovator in the methods she used in her research, usingcorrespondence analysis and multidimensional scaling to analyze data asshe explored the conceptual bases of semantic categories. She madeespecially important contributions in her research on spatial cognition andlanguage, linguistic argument structure, event representation, andchildren's emerging linguistic expressions of causality. On the theoreticalside, she always sought to disentangle what might be innate from whatcould be learned in first language acquisition, and her insights as well asher findings cast new light on typology, language universals, and humancognition. Throughout her life, she focussed on how individual languagescould have particular effects on the course and content of languagedevelopment, and what the implications were for adult mental life.

Melissa Bowerman had a perpetually inquiring mind, and was fascinated byall kinds of domains -- from birds, plants, knots, and dreams to her flutemusic. She would always find a new angle on the domain under discussionand pursue it with curiosity and interest, so lunchtimes at the Max-Planck-Institute of Psycholinguistics where she spent most of her professional life,were a constant source of enjoyment for whoever was there. She wasmodest, generous, lucid, and always scholarly in her approach.

She is survived by her husband Wijbrandt van Schuur, her threedaughters--Christy, Eva, and Claartje--and four grandchildren.

Eve V. ClarkStanford UniversityPresident, International Association for the Study of Child Language

And an added personal note from Dan Slobin:

Melissa and I were good personal friends and colleagues—ever since 1965.We cherished our memories of being trained by Roger Brown, and wetaught, researched, and published together on crosslinguistic and cognitiveaspects of acquisition. I learned so much from debating and researchingwith her. Indeed, her persistent presentations to me of argument andevidence moved me from a neo-innatist to a neo-Whorfian position. TheMax Planck was our intellectual playground, and baroque music was wherewe wandered happily. We confided in each other and received and gavesupport through the many years, as we followed each other's lives. And wedelighted in playing music together—her flute and my piano. She was aprecious person, a loyal friend, and an endlessly ingenious, creative, broad,wise, and beautiful thinker, researcher, writer, teacher. I can't begin tounderstand how very much I will miss her.

Dan I. SlobinUniversity of California, BerkeleyMember, International Association for the Study of Child Language

Linguistic Field(s): Not Applicable

Page Updated: 05-Nov-2011