William Stewart Cornyn (19061971) 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
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
"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
(click on image to enlarge)
- 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