William Welmers (1916-1988)

From University of California: In Memoriam (1990)

William E. Welmers came to UCLA in 1960 as the first professor assigned responsibility for languages in Africa south of the Sahara. Though initially appointed in the Department of Near Eastern Languages (soon thereafter renamed the Department of Near Eastern and African Languages), Professor Welmers was transferred along with other Africanists to the newly formed Department of Linguistics in 1966. From then until his retirement in 1982 he taught Yoruba, Igbo, Efik, Kru, and any other West African languages that his students wanted to study. He also taught general courses on the classification and typological properties of African languages. The research on which these courses was based led, at the height of his career, to the publication of his major opus, African Language Structures (UC Press 1973). This monumental work includes chapters on classification, phonology, tonology, morphology, and syntax, referencing over 130 languages more than half of which he had worked on personally.

Welmers was born on April 4, 1916 in Orange City, Iowa, and grew up in Holland, Michigan. There he attended not only primary and secondary schools but also Hope College, graduating in 1935 with a degree in philosophy. For the next four years he attended Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, receiving Th.B. and Th.M. degrees in Old Testament and Semitics. His father had been a professor of Greek at Hope, and the combination of his background there and the work in Semitics motivated him to enter the University of Pennsylvania with the intention of continuing the study of the languages of the ancient Near East. It was, however, wartime and there was a great need for specialists in various "exotic" languages. He came under the influence of Zellig Harris, perhaps the most distinguished linguist of the pre-generative generation, and wrote a structurally-based descriptive grammer of Fanti (Twi). His consultant in that research was a Ghanaian student by the name of Kwame Nkrumah. During the last two years of the war, Welmers remained at Penn as an instructor in Chinese and Japanese for the Army Specialized Training Program. He also worked as a consultant on a Dictionary of Spoken Chinese. In addition to his academic work, he was an ordanied minister of the Knox Orthodox Presbyterian Church and was active in the work of this church throughout his life.

The direction of his career was set in 1946 when, with his wife Beatrice, whom he had married in 1940, he went to Liberia for three years to do research for the Lutheran Mission, working principally on Kpelle. In between two periods in Liberia, he traveled widely on an ACLS grant, doing research on languages in Ivory Coast, Thana, Nigeria, and Ethiopia. From 1950 to 1954 he was a member of the Cornell faculty; in 1956, after another year in Africa, he joined the Kennedy School of Missions at the Hartford Seminary Foundation. In 1960 he came to UCLA.

Welmers was interested in all manner of linguistic phenomena found in African languages, but perhaps his deepest general interest, from which his most important theoretical contributions emerged, was in the tonal systems of these languages. He published extensively on this topic long before it was a fashionable one in theoretical phonology. The detail and accuracy of his tonal descriptions in languages such as Kpelle, Igbo, Efik, and Jukan remain a permanent legacy to phonologists.

He made his last field trips to Africa in 1974 and 1975, after recovering from serious illness in the early 70s. His last major publication was A Grammar of Vai, based on this field work. It was published in a photo-offset version from a manuscript prepared by Welmers himself on a manual typewriter which he had been using for 20 years or more. Like all his earlier work it is clear in exposition, attentive to descriptive detail, and useful to linguists of any theoretical persuasion.

In some years at UCLA, circumstances were such that Welmers was forced to teach as many as three different African languages at once. He never complained of overwork and seemed to be able to give his students unlimited time and personal supervision. Two of his students are members of the present UCLA faculty.

Bill Welmers was a sensitive and kindly man, renowned for his hospitality. Many of us will remember his ground nut stew, and the care he took in looking after his junior colleagues and associates. After his retirement in 1982, to the great regret of his friends and colleagues in Los Angeles, he and Bee moved to Lakeview, Arkansas, having spent considerable time looking carefully for what they believed would be an optimal place for their retirement.

Indeed they were happy there, with an outdoor life and lots of fishing. Bill Welmers died there on March 5, 1988.

Victoria Fromkin
Peter Ladefoged
Russell G. Schuh
Robert P. Stockwell

Last Updated:  June 4, 2002

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