- W. F. H. “Bill” Nicolaisen (1927–2016)
Bill Nicolaisen, claimed variously by folklorists in North America, Scotland, Scandinavia, and Germany as their own, passed away on February 15, 2016, at the age of 88 in the company of his family in Aberdeen, Scotland. He made his name—if I can invoke some wordplay that he as a punster and onomastician might appreciate—in the genres of names, narratives, ballads, speech, and literature. He left an indelible mark, too, with general theoretical contributions on the geography and philosophy of tradition (particularly with references to ideas of space and time), use of “cultural register” and other perspectives from sociolinguistics, and contemplation of humans as a storytelling species. He had much that was profound to say about identity, particularly the Scottishness, Americanness, Scandinavianness, and Germanness of migratory cultural traditions. He was an ardent ambassador for folklore studies and affected many disciplines with his ideas. He was a leader and organizer par excellence, with a broad vision as a medievalist and modernist and simultaneously a humanist and social scientist.
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He was a master of the scholarly essay (in both German and English), having published over 700 articles, book chapters, and reviews, and having authored or edited six books. His works are widely cited, and I am sure that readers in the field have their favorites. I put forward my baker’s dozen that with their titles indicate the keywords of name, structure, tradition, mind, time, space, place, and story that dominated his thinking: “Folk and Habitat” (Studia Fennica 20:324–30, 1978); “Place-Name Legends: An Onomastic Mythology” (Folklore 87:146–59, 1976); “How Incremental Is Incremental Repetition?” (Ballads and Ballad Research, ed. Patricia Conroy, 122–33, University of Washington Press, 1978); “Variant, Dialect, and Region: An Exploration in the Geography of Tradition” (New York Folklore 6:137–49, 1980); “Scott and the Folk Tradition” (Sir Walter Scott: The Long-Forgotten Melody, ed. Alan Bold, 127–42, Barnes and Noble, 1983); “Names and Narratives” (Journal of American Folklore 97:259–72, 1984); “The Structure of Narrated Time in the Folktale” (Le conte: Pourquoi? Comment?, ed. Geneviève Calame-Griaule, Veronika Görög-Karady, and Michèle Chiche, 417–36, Éditions du CNRS, 1984); “The Linguistic Structure of Legends” (Perspectives on Contemporary Legend, ed. Gillian Bennett, Paul Smith, and J. D. A. Widdowson, 51–76, Sheffield Academic Press, 1987); “Maps of Fiction: The Cartography of the Landscape of the Mind” (Onomastica Canadiana 72:57–68, 1990); “Why Tell Stories?” (Fabula 31:5–10, 1991); “German Sage and English Legend: Terminology and Conceptual Problems” (Monsters with Iron Teeth, ed. Gillian Bennett and Paul Smith, 79–87, [End Page 219] Sheffield Academic Press, 1988); “Wortloses Erzählen” (Bild und Text, ed. Leander Petzoldt, Ingo Schneider, and Petra Streng, 154–62, Národopisný Ústav SAV and Slovak Academic Press, 1993); and “The Teller and the Tale: Storytelling on Beech Mountain” (Jack in Two Worlds, ed. William McCarthy, 123–49, University of North Carolina Press, 1994).
He also exerted influence on folkloristics as a discipline through his teaching and mentoring. He affected the life paths of many students, of which I count myself one, and he was renowned for reaching out with a guiding hand to countless colleagues. His teaching record spanned over 60 years in five countries, beginning at the University of Glasgow in 1951 and continuing at University College Dublin (1952–1953), Ohio State University (1966–1967), University of Edinburgh (1968–1969–1996), Binghamton University (1969–1992), Aarhus University (1990 Aarhus University (1993), and University of Aberdeen (1992–1997). I can tell you that in the classroom, students knew he genuinely cared for them, and he had a gift of eloquence—in several languages and dialects. He spiced his lectures with performances of ballad, humor, and story that riveted attention and taught valuable life—as well as scholarly—lessons.
He was familiar to many scholars as the ultimate globe-trotting organizational leader who bridged international differences and forged bonds in scholarly common cause. After all, he was the only person to have been president of both the American Folklore Society (1983) and the Folklore Society...