David Eugene Watters (1944-2009)

SIL Linguist — Himalayan Linguistics

David Eugene WattersIn Memoriam

Our long-serving colleague, David E. Watters, passed away 18 May 2009 from a pulmonary embolism as the result of a post operation blood clot. The news of his death came as a shock to all. David was a versatile and experienced linguist, upholding the highest SIL traditions of academic excellence and service to all. We have lost a dear friend, a major player on the Tibeto-Burman studies scene, a gifted translator, consultant, writer and teacher. We will miss him sorely.

David Watters was recognized as an expert in Tibeto-Burman linguistics, especially the Kham language. He was Associate Editor of the journal Himalayan Linguistics, adjunct faculty at the University of Oregon, where he had received his PhD in 1998, a visiting scholar at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, Nepal, Honorary Visiting Fellow at the Research Centre for Linguistic Typology (RCLT) at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, and Director of the Oregon SIL school for four years. His seminal publication, A Grammar of Kham, was published in the Cambridge Grammatical Descriptions series in 2002.

David was originally from Dagget, California. He and his wife Nancy arrived in Nepal in February 1969. In September 1969, following up a clue from the American anthropologist John Hitchcock, David and his colleague, Gary Shepherd, undertook a survey to locate the Kham of West Nepal, a group of languages that had gone unnoticed by such previous investigators as Kirkpatrick, Hodgson, Grierson, and Konow. In November 1969, David and Nancy took up residence in the village that would be their home until mid-1976.

Significant publications

Of David Watters’ many published works we will focus on three.

David entered the graduate linguistics program at the University of Oregon in response to an invitation from Scott DeLancey. Working within Givón’s functional framework, he finished his M.A. in 1996 and his Ph.D in 1998. His dissertation was revised and published by Cambridge University Press in 2002 as A Grammar of Kham, a work that has received high acclaim: “THIS is how to write a grammar” (Garrett 2007:477). “Watters’ work is the best grammar yet published of a Nepalese language and one of the best available for any language in the Sino-Tibetan family” (Noonan 2005:89).

Parallel to the grammar, David had been working for years on a dictionary of Kham, and in later years he had been maintaining it in virtually photo-ready form. In 2004 when two other major dictionaries were being prepared for publication by members of SIL, it seemed to David that this might be a good time to print the Kham dictionary. It appeared in October of that year.

Finally, Kusunda had been known among linguists interested in Nepal as a virtually extinct language. Some had managed to take a few word lists, and there was a short text that no one had been able to interpret. But in April 2004, with the help of the National Foundation for the Development of Indigenous Nationalities (NFDIN), three Kusunda speakers were brought to Kathmandu for an intense three months of work with David and other members of Tribhuvan University’s Central Department of Linguistics. The results were published as Notes on Kusunda grammar (available free online – see References below). This not only rescued Kusunda from becoming an extinct language about which nothing linguistic was known; it also was significant in establishing Kusunda as a language isolate.

Additional tributes

David Eugene WattersKaka and David in Village

With additional insights, Dick Hugoniot, long-term SIL colleague of David’s, wrote:

The one word that I could use to describe David Watters was that he was genuine. He lived out his faith and believed with all of his heart that God in a miraculous way led him and Nancy to work and live among the Kham people. He was singular and unswerving in his work and in his love for the Kham people. He was not alone in this as Nancy shared this same love and vision and they passed it on to their two sons Steve and Daniel.

We worked together with the Watters from 1970-1976. Edith and I along with our children had the privilege to be with David and his family in their village for ten days at Christmas time in 1975. We were able to witness firsthand the love that David and Nancy showed to the Kham people. The prayer letter that he sent out on the death and home going of his Kham colleague and brother in Christ, Kaka, told not only what the Lord had done through the life of Kaka but through the work and witness of David and Nancy.

In the first announcement of David’s death, Carol Genetti (UCSB Professor and Associate Dean of the Division of Humanities and Fine Arts), wrote:

It is with deep sadness that I inform readers of Himalayan Linguistics of the death of Dr. David Watters, Associate Editor of HL, and one of the top scholars in Tibeto-Burman linguistics in Nepal. David and his wife, Nancy, first went to Nepal in the early 1970's, where they raised their children among the Kham community. David completed his Ph.D. in Linguistics at the University of Oregon in 1998. His dissertation was an extensive study of Kham, a previously undescribed Tibeto-Burman language, including a detailed comparison of the verbal morphology of several Kham dialects, and an analysis of the implications of this data for the reconstruction of Proto-Tibeto-Burman. The revised grammar was published by Cambridge University Press in 2002. He was also the author of Notes on Kusunda: A language isolate of Nepal, published in HL in 2006, as well as many articles in journals and edited collections. In addition to his own careful and admirable scholarship, David dedicated his life to furthering linguistics in Nepal. For many years he taught in the Department of Linguistics at Tribhuvan University, where he was a valuable mentor to scores of Nepalese students from a diverse array of ethnic and linguistic backgrounds. His contribution to Tibeto-Burman languages will undoubtedly live on in the work of these students for decades to come. … A deeply committed Christian, he viewed death as a passage to everlasting joy. David was a wonderful friend, a treasured father, and a fine colleague. He will be greatly missed.

Finally, his sons Steve and Daniel Watters wrote:

We praise God for the privilege of having such a wonderful father. He was the greatest man we knew.


David Eugene Watters