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William Cameron Townsend

Stimulator of linguistic research among ethnic minorities and champion of their cultural dignity

Compiled by Calvin Hibbard

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SIL expands worldwide

Meanwhile, the work of training young people continued. SIL linguists, working on several hundred previously unwritten languages, gained the attention of sectors of the academic world in many countries. By 1942 universities in the United States had become interested in SIL's growing expertise. That year the University of Oklahoma invited SIL to give courses on its campus as an affiliate of its linguistics department. In 1952, at the invitation of the University of North Dakota, SIL summer courses were offered there as well, and eventually at the University of Washington in Seattle, the University of Texas at Arlington, and the University of Oregon in Eugene. Other SIL courses were established in Australia, Brazil, Canada, England, France, Germany, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, the Republic of South Africa, and Singapore (later moved to Darwin, Australia). In addition, national training programs have been established in most of the countries where SIL works. The majority of these training programs are still in operation. Close to 40,000 students, representing many countries and organizations, had received linguistic training at SIL courses by the close of the twentieth century.

Cameron Townsend explains his viewpoint at the SIL corporation conference held in Mexico in l962. Cameron Townsend explains his viewpoint at the SIL corporation conference held in Mexico in 1962.

The growing numbers of SIL linguistic and support personnel have enabled SIL to expand its work into many countries. The SIL staff is composed of approximately 6,000 members from more than 40 home countries. Over 70 countries are represented by the 1,576 languages that SIL people are studying, usually at the invitation of the government, a university, or a minority-language community, often under the terms of a cooperative cultural contract. Results from their studies are constantly appearing in print. The most recent bibliographic database of SIL includes 27,373 entries, 21,512 of which relate to 1,724 specific languages (5,861 of the entries are more general and do not relate to a particular language). A little over half of the entries are vernacular works published in minority languages for speakers and readers of these languages. The other half are scholarly books and articles authored or edited by or with SIL members.

A handicapped Tzeltal man enthusiastically reads his new copy of the Tzeltal New Testament. Photo: Cornell Capa. A handicapped Tzeltal man enthusiastically reads his new copy of the Tzeltal New Testament. Photo: Cornell Capa.

Included in the SIL Bibliography are three significant items that reflect a fulfillment of Townsend's lifelong intention of reconstructing language families. The first is a University of Pennsylvania dissertation by Dr. Robert Longacre of SIL on Proto-Mixtecan. One reviewer said this "belongs to the class composed of Bloomfield's Algonquian and perhaps nothing else." The second is Dr. Sarah Gudchinsky's dissertation on the reconstruction of Proto-Popotecan, the parent language of both the Mixtecan and Popolocan language families of Mexico. The third, a University of Pennsylvania dissertation by Dr. Calvin Rensch on Proto-Otomanguean, is thought to be a milestone in the science of comparative linguistics.

One who was mentored by Townsend was Dr. Richard S. Pittman. In 1951, continuing Townsend's vision, he published a modest catalog of the world's languages, The Ethnologue, which has continued to grow in quantity and quality. The 14th edition, over 1,000 pages, was published by SIL in 2000. It lists 6,809 languages spoken in the world today. The volume attempts to bring together the best information available on those languages including detailed data such as their location, number of speakers, and variant names. Since 1996 it has also been on the Internet and is consulted by thousands of computer users every day, both lay people and scholars.

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