David D. Thomas (1930–2006)

SIL Linguist — mainland southeast Asia

David D. ThomasIn Memoriam

SIL International mourns the passing of one of its eminent members, David Thomas, who passed away on April 14, 2006 at the age of 75 in North Carolina. David will be remembered for his outstanding contributions to linguistics and Mon-Khmer languages, for his energetic teaching, for his field work in mainland Southeast Asia, and for his service as mentor to a great number of students and to his junior colleagues.

By Ken Gregerson — Colleague (and former President SIL)

Scholarly contributor

David Thomas takes his distinguished place in the pantheon of leading scholars in Mon-Khmer linguistics. It may be difficult to appreciate now in the twenty first century just how little was known about this Southeast Asian family of languages when Dave and his wife Dorothy (Dot) arrived in Vietnam in the 1950’s to begin their research.  Respected scholars were still, following Pater Wilhelm Schmidt, classifying Chamic languages as Mon-Khmer—an issue laid to rest by Richard Pittman in 1959.   The sub-groupings of Mon-Khmer languages were vague and had little empirical basis.  Thomas, acknowledging the great French scholarly tradition in Indochina and celebrating especially the ground-breaking work of Haudricourt, set about with his colleagues both to study in detail and to classify the many Montagnard groups in the region.  Dave, along with Prof. Nguyen Dinh Hoa, formed the Linguistic Circle of Saigon, which in turn launched the journal Mon-Khmer Studies in 1964.  This unique journal was a ‘labor of love’ which has over the years had several homes (now at Mahidol University in Bangkok), but would surely have died on the vine without Dave’s single-handed persistence.

David Thomas was a student of the classic comparative linguistic method, having studied with some of the best in the field at the University of Pennsylvania.  He accurately judged that while reconstructing proto consonants in Mon-Khmer would turn out to be relatively straightforward, the convoluted evolution of register-related vocalic systems in the daughter languages would pose a huge challenge.  He was right forty years ago and he is still right today!

An intensely practical man, Dave was also very curious-minded.  He was interested in explanations, theory and modeling of empirical discoveries. Early on he explored the notion of (the now quaint) Transformational Paradigm as a way of looking at syntax from new perspectives.  Historically, he sought to understand the possible Chamic migration effects that appeared to have ‘split’ South Bahnaric groups from North Bahnaric ones.  He was keenly interested in explanations for the variegated manifestations of Mon-Khmer phonological register systems.

Complete field worker

In the spirit of his mentors Kenneth Pike and Richard Pittman, David Thomas committed himself to a holistic approach to his work. Dave and Dorothy Thomas worked on all fronts — linguistics, literacy, anthropology and translation of a variety of literature.  In each of these separate disciplines Dave and Dot carried on research and published an extensive body of papers, books, educational manuals and Scriptures in the Chrau language in Vietnam.  This habit of scholarly well-roundedness was repeated again in a couple of further decades of work with the Northern Khmer in Thailand.

Life-long learner

David’s words to his colleagues still ring in our ears:  “When you take a home-leave from your fieldwork always schedule time to ‘sharpen your tools’ before you return overseas to your work.”    He encouraged, cajoled, urged  his colleagues to attend the Linguistic Society of America and other professional meetings, to enroll in MA and PhD programs with the leading scholars of our home countries, and read technical articles on a regular basis.  He practiced what he preached, finishing his PhD in linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania.  He used to say that on the field we absolutely needed for our colleagues to come back from their study programs with the world’s best linguists and to bring all the rest of us up to date on what was going on in linguistics.  He valued those who took the trouble to learn ‘more than they needed to’ in order to help both themselves and their colleagues to do a more competent job.


David Thomas was instinctively an academic. And he had a knack for encouraging intellectual curiosity in others.  He could be an unstinting critic to those who needed (and could handle) it and he was an equally patient encourager to those who required a boost instead of a boot!   Dave read hundreds of linguistics manuscripts raising fledgling efforts to professional standard and further sharpening the insights of even the most advanced ones.  He was a meticulous editor and an activist advocate that every one of his colleagues, whether a new field worker or an accomplished PhD, could get their paper published in some appropriate academic outlet.   Besides being a one-on-one consultant in the field, David Thomas was an effective teacher in the classroom.  Perhaps his most lasting university contribution will be the role he and Dot played in spawning new generations of Thai scholars when they helped to lay the academic foundations at Mahidol University for the Institute of Language and Culture for Rural Development.  In this way the circle of Dave’s influence continues to spread in service among the ethnic groups of Southeast Asia.

Gentleman as well as scholar

D. Thomas in regalia David Thomas was not your hail-fellow-well-met type.  He was a quiet gentle man. His non-verbosity may have been partly due to his efforts well into adulthood to overcome the handicap of stuttering.  Even so, Dave did not shy away from taking the floor to argue against misguided principles or practices he observed in his organization.  Though he chafed under some of the decisions his colleagues made, he was never bombastic in his responses.  He could be stubborn in his (typically well-thought out) views, but still never abusive to those with a different point of view.  Dave was possessed of a quiet self-confidence, but was devoid of any sense of self-importance.  When the project he and his colleagues were engaged in found itself without anyone to do the bookkeeping, he volunteered to sacrifice some of his own research time to serve his fellows in this “mundane” assignment.   Talented as he was, his demeanor was more servant, less master.

Man with a mission

Young David
Young David

A son of missionaries to China in the 1930’s, where he was himself as a child interned during World War II, David Thomas had a sense of larger purpose in life.  His question was ‘how can an introverted studious young fellow be of some use to God and his fellow man?” He found his answer in the same place another similar searcher had discovered it when he learned that Kenneth Pike and some of his colleagues were at work unraveling the mysteries of unwritten languages around the world.   His intellect was satisfied in studying the unknown, his heart was fulfilled in sharing the tools of literacy and the wisdom of the Scriptures—both things precious to himself—with those who likewise thirsted. Dave’s mission is now finished. His baton is passed to those whom he has mentored.