David L. Olmsted

Posted: August 2022

David L. Olmsted, linguist, anthropologist, and Life Member of the Linguistic Society of America, died on June 3, 2022, of pneumonia. Professor Olmsted led a life of distinguished service to the LSA, including a fourteen-year tenure on the Committee on the Publication of the Journal (i.e., Language, the flagship journal of the Society). He was also a speaker at the 1963 Linguistic Institute at the University of Washington. He has made seminal contributions to the fields of Slavic linguistics, Hokan linguistics, and language acquisition and development. He is survived by his wife, who has graciously shared the following remarks.

David L. Olmsted (1926-2022)

Internationally renowned linguist and anthropologist David Lockwood Olmsted died in hospital on June 3, 2022, after a battle with pneumonia.

Born March 11, 1926 to George L. and Marjorie Lockwood Olmsted in Jamestown, NY, David attended the public schools of Randolph, NY, emerging as the valedictorian of his high school’s Class of 1942. He supported himself during high school by working for room and board on dairy farms milking cows.

He entered Cornell University in 1942, studying agriculture and aspiring to a career in veterinary medicine. After a year, the federal government instituted a program of scholarships to support the study of languages deemed important for national security. He took the accelerated program in Russian, which was taught year-round, and thus was nearly ready to graduate two years later.

He volunteered for the army at the age of 17, and was called up in 1944 for basic training in Biloxi, MS. After brief periods at army installations, he was sent to the Pacific, where he served in the occupation of Japan, and as a Russian interpreter, on the 38th parallel in Korea.

While in Korea, he was Editor-in-Chief of the 7th Division newspaper, the Hourglass. He defined the publicity clampdown of the major protests of the thousands of American troops left behind, as the war ended in the Far East. He published accounts of the protests supplied by the Associated Press and was promptly demoted from Sergeant to Private First Class, and from Editor-in-Chief to Infantry.

During this time, he developed an interest in Korean folklore, which later served as the basis for his first monograph, the Korean Folklore Reader. Discharged in 1946, he worked in Los Angeles as a magazine editor.

He returned to Cornell to finish his education that autumn: AB in Russian Language and Literature (1947), MA in Linguistics (1948), and PhD in Slavic Linguistics, Linguistics, and Anthropology (1950).

In preparation for an appointment in Linguistic Anthropology at Northwestern University, he spent the summer of 1950 on the Navajo reservation studying the language.

At Northwestern, he was introduced to African anthropology by Melville G. Herskovits, the great specialist in African and Afro-American peoples and cultures. As a result of this collaboration, he took a field trip to Cuba for the study of Lucumí, a Yoruba-derived liturgical language used by devotees of the Orisa religion in the Spanish Caribbean.

A Ford Foundation Fellowship (1951-54) at Yale University, where he was Assistant Professor of Linguistics, exposed him to Hullian psychology and the influence of Bernard Bloch, editor of Language, the journal of the Linguistic Society of America. He was appointed to the Committee on the Publication of the Journal, effectively an Associate Editor position, which he held for the next fourteen years.

In 1954, the University of California, Davis, began to expand its offerings in letters and science, and he was brought to the campus as the first linguist and anthropologist. For the next thirty-nine years, he helped build up the anthropology department, while shifting his research emphasis to the Hokan family of languages, spoken by Native Americans from northern California to southern Mexico.

Fieldwork among the Achumawi and Atsugewi resulted in dictionaries of these two languages, followed by study of the related Tegustlatec of Oaxaca, Mexico.

In 1962, he went as an exchange professor to the universities of Moscow and Leningrad, reviving his long-dormant Russian. At this time, he began research on the Polish-Russian linguist Jan Baudoin de Courtenay, a pioneer of structuralism.

He first introduced a new theory of child language acquisition at a lecture at Moscow State University. This lecture was later translated into English at the Linguistic Institute at the University of Washington.

The next decade saw an efflorescence of research on child language development with colleagues at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford and at UC Davis. This research culminated in the publication of one of his books, Out of the Mouth of Babes: Earliest Stages in Language Learning.

Professor Olmsted was nominated for the Faculty Research Lectureship in the 1974-75 academic year, the highest honor that can be bestowed on a faculty member, by the Davis Division of the UC Academic Senate. In his lecture, “Heresy in linguistics,” he contrasts his behavioral approach to linguistics with Noam Chomsky’s metaphysical belief in innatism as it pertains to the nature and acquisition of language.

An article published in the Fall 1986 issue of the UC Davis Magazine, titled “Ember in the Sea,’ outlines Olmsted’s latest research, which sent him on several field trips to the island of Corsica to study the endangered Corsican language and culture. Unfortunately, by the time he retired from UC Davis in 1993, he had not published his findings.

His scholarship—close to 90 publications—earned him many awards, including a Social Science Council Faculty Research Fellowship (1955-58), a Guggenheim Fellowship (1961), and a Fellowship at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (1966-67).[David Olmsted]
David Olmsted, taken from a1977 article

announcing his appointment as

editor of American Anthropology
He was a reviewer of grant proposals for the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, and acted as a referee and consulting editor for a number of learned journals. He served on the Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association and as the Editor-in-Chief of American Anthropologist, the flagship journal of the association.

His record of university service was deemed “remarkable and distinguished” by the Committee that nominated him as UC Davis Faculty Research Lecturer. He was very active in the affairs of the Davis Division, and as Chairman of the Committee on Academic Personnel, both locally and of the statewide Academic Senate.

After two earlier marriages ended in divorce, David Olmsted met Anne Hiller (née Marty). They were married in 1986.

He is survived by his daughter Elaine Olmsted Gearheart (born in 1948), his son Frederick Olmsted (born and adopted in 1968), his nephew Nicolas Boseck, son of his late sister Nancy Olmsted Slone, his only sibling. He is also survived by his wife, Anne Olmsted.

David was calm, thoughtful, principled, and had a keen sense of humor. He had a passion for reading, chess, jazz, and Mozart. He was a lifelong active Democrat who closely followed political events and trends.

While teaching at UC Davis, he tended his herd of Suffolk sheep and planted dozens of trees in the hard clay soil of his land. During his retirement, he perfected his culinary skills (his risotto and chili were legendary), traveled often to Europe with his wife, spoiled his cats, and played his musical instruments.

He will be sorely missed by his family, friends, and colleagues. To honor his life’s achievements, the David L. Olmsted Memorial Scholarship will be established at Cornell University for students in need of financial aid.