William Stewart Cornyn

William Stewart Cornyn

1906 - 1971

William Stewart Cornyn (1906–1971) was a Canadian-born American linguist and author, noted for his expertise in Burmese and Russian language studies, as well as for his research on Athabaskan and Burman etymology.

Cornyn was born in Vancouver, British Columbia. In 1922 he moved to Los Angeles where he first found work as a stock clerk, hall boy, and bookkeeper. He lived in San Francisco from 1924 to 1928, working as an insurance clerk, eventually returning to Los Angeles. He married twice, first to Sara Ellen Fetterman on 24 September 1928 (by whom he had son William, Jr.); then to Catherine McKee on January 29, 1937 (by whom he had two sons and a daughter).

He graduated from University of California, Los Angeles (BA with highest honors, 1940), and did graduate work at Yale (AM 1942, PhD 1944), where he eventually served as a professor of Slavic and Southeast Asian Linguistics and chair of both the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, and the Russian Area Program.

“In 1940-41, as the United States moved toward entering World War II, a cadre of field linguists was recruited to learn and teach the lesser-known languages of the European and Pacific theatres. Before World War II Southeast Asia had been virtually the exclusive domain of scholars from the European countries that had colonized it politically – Britain, France, and the Netherlands. Hardly a soul in the United States knew anything about the rich profusion of language and cultures of Indochina, Thailand, Burma, or the Indonesian archipelago.”

Recruited to produce practical handbooks, teaching grammars and vocabularies for military personnel, Cornyn chose or was assigned Burmese, of necessity learning the language from scratch, primarily through direct elicitation from native speakers. For much of the remainder of his career his research focused on the description of and preparation of pedagogical materials for Burmese as well as Russian. In 1962 he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in Linguistics.

“1944 color print of soldiers learning how to speak Burmese with Dr. William S. Cornyn, a Yale linguistic scientist, shown in the dark suit, and Maung Shwe-Waing demonstrating how he uses his vocal cords. The students in the photo are officers from OSS Detachment 101”*   (click on image to enlarge)

   * https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Cornyn

      and from:

- Mark Liberman, Language Log, (posted March 1, 2007) excerpts from “Mary R. Haas Obituary”, in Language, Vol. 73, No. 4. (Dec ,1997), pp. 826-837).

 - SEAS Archives: Reports and correspondence: Pelzer, Conklin, Thong and unknown authors: 1959-1973