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William Cameron Townsend*
1896–1982

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

Compiled by Calvin Hibbard


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Cameron Townsend at Occidental College, 1917. Cameron Townsend at Occidental College, 1917.

"Not since the third century has there been a man like Cameron Townsend who attempted so much, and saw so many dreams realized in his lifetime," declared Kenneth L. Pike, Nobel Peace Prize Nominee. He called them "dreams" but they were more on the order of hard-nosed intentions. One objective was to stimulate the study of every single minority language in the world not yet analyzed or recorded. Another was to enable every people, wherever they were, to establish and control their own communal identities. Townsend saw tremendous progress toward accomplishing both goals in his lifetime. What follows is only a keyhole glimpse into the story.

As for the first "dream," the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), which Townsend founded, has in the last half of the twentieth century published academic materials describing and analyzing 1,724 languages and is currently working on 1,053 others. As for the second, to Townsend equally as important as the first, he with his colleagues worked vigorously with appropriate local governmental and educational agencies to help all these peoples acquire self-esteem, dignity, and national identity.

Cakchiquel friends of the Townsends in the village of Cajagualten, Guatemala, l924.
Cakchiquel friends of the Townsends in the village of Cajagualten, Guatemala, 1924.

Townsend's contribution to the academic community and his encouragement to members of small ethnic groups to understand their own personal worth cannot be measured. The world of science along with multiplied segments of humanity owe great gratitude to Townsend.

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*Founder of The Summer Institute of Linguistics