Charles Gilman

Posted: December 2018

The LSA is saddened to report on the October 3, 2018 passing of Charles Gilman, a former member of the Linguistic Society of America from 1978.  His life, career, and spirit are remembered by Salikoko S. Mufwene, whom we thank for preparing this obituary:

"Obituary for Charles Gilman, 5 September 1941 – 3 October 2018

"It is with a great deal of sorrow that I report the death of a former mentor, Charles Gilman, for whom I worked as a teaching assistant at the National University of Zaïre, during the 1973-74 academic year. He played an important role in helping me and some other then Zairian students get prepared for graduate training in the United States, advising me especially to apply to the University of Chicago to work with the late James D. McCawley at the peak of Generative Semantics.

"Charles studied creolistics at Northwestern University, under Morris Goodman. His dissertation, defended in 1972, was titled The Comparative Structure in French, English and Cameroonian Pidgin English: An Exercise in Linguistic Comparison. It was based on field research he had conducted in Cameroon during the 1960s, when he worked there as an English teacher. After graduation, he spent a total of 18 years teaching at various universities in Africa, including the then National University of Zaïre, the National University of Rwanda, and Bunda College (in Malawi). He spent most of the rest of this post-graduate life working as a partner of his wife Ruth Kornfield at Rainbow Bridge Consulting. They traveled to various places in Africa and Asia, before returning to the US, in Eugene, Oregon, when he was struck by cancer. He succumbed to this on 3 October 2018, surrounded by Ruth, his daughter Lisa, and his son Paul, as well as his grand-children.

"Charles was a very humble man, who also didn’t promote some of his innovating thinking, as he seems to have refrained from the polemics that have marked genetic creolistics. He was the first creolist to my knowledge to invoke “selection” in his essay “Pidgin languages: Form Selection or Simplification?” published at Indiana University Linguistics Club (1985). This paper, originally presented at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Tenth Annual Linguistics Symposium, in 1981, definitely contributed to my competition-and-selection approach to the emergence of creoles, when I turned to evolutionary biology and macroecology to elaborate my 1986 position that the substratist and universalist hypotheses complement each other.

"In 1983, at the 29th Southeast Conference on Linguistics, in Atlanta, Charles hypothesized that forms such as wuda ‘would have’ and cuda ‘could have’ in English creoles have their origins not in would of and could of, as often claimed by amateur historical dialectologists, but evolved from would’ve and could’ve, as attested in some current nonstandard English dialects. (Interestingly, the contracted ’ve < have and the weakened of sound alike, while the contracted have is grammatically more likely in this syntactic environment.) The article from the presentation was published as “Had've: A New Auxiliary?” in the SECOL Review 9.9-23 (1985).

"He toyed with the idea of “Pidgins as Performance, Competence, and Language” in the International Journal of the Sociology of Language 38.19-30 (1982) and thought of “Cameroonian Pidgin English [as] a Neo-African Language” in Readings in Creole Studies, ed. by Ian F. Hancock, Edgar Polomé, Morris Goodman, & Bernd Heine, published at Ghent: Story-Scientia 269-280 (1979). Cameroon Pidgin English is indeed indigenous to Africa, regardless of whether it should be characterized as a neo-Germanic language variety or one without genetic affiliation, owing to the extensive African substrate influence on it. Creolists are still divided on the issue of the genetic classification of creoles.

"Other noteworthy contributions of his to genetic creolistics include “African Areal Features: Sprachbund, not Substrate,” published in the inaugural issue of the Journal of Pidgin and Creole Languages 1.33-50 (1986) and “Black Identity, Homeostasis, and Survival: African and Metropolitan Speech Varieties in the New World,” published in Africanisms in Afro-American Language Varieties, ed. by Salikoko S. Mufwene, 388-402, Athens: the University of Georgia Press (1993). I was privileged to co-author with him “How African is Gullah and Why?” in American Speech 62. 120-139 (1987).

"I feel very fortunate to have crossed paths with Charles, as he taught me to be a critical reader and an inter-disciplinary scholar, as well as how to navigate my way in the American academic environment. He remained a good friend, not in the least patronizing despite the professor-assistant context in which we first met, very supportive though detached from the polemics in which I have been embroiled regarding the emergence of creoles. If anything, he was amused by the tone of the debates. I will miss the friend and the well-balanced scholar and family man he was, moreover a feminist who strongly supported his wife’s ambitions.

Salikoko S. Mufwene

The University of Chicago