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  • Kay Ruth M. Williamson (1935–2005) Her Life and Work
  • Ozo-mekuri Ndimele and Robin Horton

Kay Ruth M. Williamson was born in Hereford, Britain, on 26 January 1935. She obtained a BA and an MA in English Language and Literature from St Hilda's College, Oxford, in 1956 and 1960 respectively. She completed her PhD in Linguistics at Yale University in 1964. Her area of specialization was Ịjọ linguistics.

She started her career as a teacher of linguistics in the Department of English, University College, Ibadan, in 1957. She was appointed Professor of Linguistics in the Department of Linguistics and Nigerian Languages, University of Ibadan, in 1972. She moved to the University of Port Harcourt in 1977, first as Director of Studies (Language), and later as Head of Department of Linguistics and African Languages, 1982–4, 1987–9, 1993–5. In 1984–5, she was a Visiting Scholar at the University of Leiden. She was appointed Dean, Graduate School, University of Port Harcourt during 1990–1, and was Visiting Scholar at Wolfson College, Oxford, in 1991. After retiring from active service, she was employed on contract as Professor in the Department of Linguistics and Communication Studies, University of Port Harcourt, in 2000–2. In 2002, she was appointed UNESCO Professor of Cultural Heritage, University of Port Harcourt, a position she held until she died.

She was an active and dependable member of the following academic associations: International Phonetic Association (Life Member), Linguistic Society of America, International African Institute, Linguistic Circle of New York, African Studies Association of the United Kingdom, West African Linguistic Society, Linguistic Association of Nigeria.

Her initial area of research interest was syntax. In fact, her PhD thesis was on the grammar of the Kolokuma dialect of Ịjọ. But later on she totally abandoned syntax in favour of phonology and historical linguistics. In an interview she granted Professor E. N. Emenanjo and [End Page 168] me, when we produced the first festschrift in her honour, she said she was first attracted to syntax under the influence of Noam Chomsky's Syntactic Structures. This interest in syntax, according to her, did not last because 'syntactic theory changed so fast that it was not possible to keep up with it outside the United States'. Another explanation which she gave for the change in focus in her studies was that a great many Nigerian languages were not properly described – hence the more urgent need to document them systematically, and to produce pedagogical materials in them.

The desire to save minority languages and cultures led her – and close associates like Professors E. J. Alagoa and Otonti Nduka – to institute, through funding from UNICEF and the Rivers State government, the famous Rivers Readers Project to produce primers and readers in 23 languages/dialects of old Rivers State. The project also organized workshops for writers, teachers and speakers of these languages/dialects. It was through these workshops that many people in the Niger Delta area of Nigeria learned how to read and write their own native languages. Although she produced a dictionary and wrote a couple of articles on Igbo, her major interest was to develop the minority and endangered languages of the Niger Delta region.

Williamson's contribution to knowledge is far-ranging; apart from publishing articles and books on almost all the Niger Delta languages, she succeeded in training at least one linguist for each of these languages to continue her good work.

She was a celebrated and committed international scholar who cared much about details of analysis, simplicity and grace of expression. To be supervised by her as a graduate or undergraduate student opened an entirely new world of rewarding life experience.

Three areas are outstanding in her contribution to knowledge. First, she introduced multi-valued features in phonological analysis, especially for consonants. Second, she developed very simple and scientific procedures for linguistic classification of languages with little or no documented past. She also developed a practical orthography manual which has continued to serve as a useful guide for dealing with the peculiar sounds of Nigerian languages. Many Nigerian languages today have excellent and reliable orthographies courtesy of Williamson's manual.

In her later days, she became fascinated by...


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