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  • Charles E. Townsend In Memoriam
  • Laura A. Janda

Charles E. Townsend (1932–2015) was an exceptional scholar, a dedicated teacher, and a loyal friend, who we will dearly miss.

Townsend the Scholar

Townsend’s career as a Slavist began when he was drafted and spent a year at the Army Language School in Monterey, California, studying Russian. Upon his release from the Army, Charlie enrolled in graduate studies at Harvard, where he earned his PhD in Slavic Languages and Literatures in 1962. From Harvard, Townsend moved on to Princeton, where he served as Chair of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures for 32 years.

Townsend’s dissertation, written under the supervision of Horace Lunt, was a linguistic analysis of the 18th-century memoirs of Princess Natal’ja Borisovna Dolgorukaja, which he later published as a book. The Townsend edition of Dolgorukaja’s memoirs is now considered a pioneering document in Russian autobiographical and gender studies.

The graduate program that Townsend had been hired to help build was discontinued in 1970, only to be reinstated—thanks largely to Townsend’s tenacity—in 1991. For twenty years he managed to continue a research scholar’s productivity in the absence of a graduate program.

Townsend’s lifetime of achievements is remarkable in its quantity, quality, and scope. Townsend went on to author eight more books and over 50 scholarly articles addressing an impressive range of issues in Slavic phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics and exploring the form-function dynamic across the contexts of various literary and spoken registers. A dual purpose prevailed throughout his work, combining intellectual precision with pedagogical application, demonstrating the role that linguistic description can play in the language classroom. The range of languages in Townsend’s mastery provided [End Page 181] the means for his sustained commitment to contrastive analysis of languages.

Townsend spent a year in Prague in 1968, and that marked the beginning of his fascination with Czech. Although he was invited by the East-Slavic Institute for a project focused on Russian, Townsend was giving lectures in Czech within three months of his arrival. That year was of course pivotal in Czech history, with both the Prague Spring and the Warsaw Pact invasion, which he and his family witnessed, cementing his affinity for the Czech language and people.

Townsend’s A description of spoken Prague Czech (1990) was a brave piece of scholarship, documenting the phonological, morphological, syntactic, and lexical differences between the official Czech literary language (spisovná čeština, a rather artificial code) and the language spoken in Prague (běžně mluvená pražština). Though there had been some prior descriptions of spoken Czech, none were as comprehensive or specifically targeted at the Prague norm. It is hard for people today to imagine how daring it was for an American to undertake a survey of any kind in communist Czechoslovakia in the 1980s. At that time the government saw the spoken language as an unruly force and did not approve of such research. Townsend created a book that brought to life the language of the people of Prague in a way that was impossible for local linguists of the time. A native Czech and Bohemist living in the west proclaimed “This is an amazing book. As I read it, I discovered what my mother tongue really is.”

Townsend coauthored Common and comparative Slavic (1996), a book that tracked the evolution of Slavic from Indo-European and detailed the relationships among all of the Slavic languages. This volume grew from Townsend’s trove of handouts, reflecting decades of research, and has become a classic in the field. It was republished in both German (2000) and Korean (2011).

A reference grammar of Czech coauthored by Townsend was published in 2000 and released in digital format by the Duke University Slavic and East European Language Resource Center in 2002, where it is available at:

To celebrate his scholarly accomplishments, and to mark his seventieth birthday and the year of his retirement from Princeton, in 2002 Townsend’s colleagues presented him with Where one’s tongue rules well: A Festschrift for Charles E. Townsend (Indiana Slavic studies, 13...


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