Melissa Bowerman

From the website of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics (in Nijmegen, the Netherlands) on November 2:

Researchers and staff at MPI were deeply saddened to learn of the death of Melissa Bowerman, senior scientist emerita of MPI’s Language Acquisition Department. Melissa passed away unexpectedly on October 31, after a brief illness.

A thumbnail photo of Melissa:

The MPI tribute continued:

Melissa Bowerman carried the torch of first language acquisition for the institute for over twenty years. She was one of the founders of the modern study of child language. Her work explored how children learn every aspect of language, but she was especially famous for her research on how children learn the meanings of words as they differ across languages. Her contributions to the study of child language and the semantics of words have been hugely influential, recognised in her election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences last October.

“Melissa was a wonderful colleague, ‘mother’ to many PhD students, and constructive critic to all our research staff”, says MPI director Stephen Levinson. “Her wide and deep command of the literature on child language was a resource utilised by many of us. She will be deeply missed as researcher, supervisor, supportive friend and warm soul.”

A longer obituary, by Eve Clark, has been posted on the Linguist List. It has this touching added personal note by Dan Slobin:

Melissa and I were good personal friends and colleagues—ever since 1965. We cherished our memories of being trained by Roger Brown, and we taught, researched, and published together on crosslinguistic and cognitive aspects of acquisition. I learned so much from debating and researching with her. Indeed, her persistent presentations to me of argument and evidence moved me from a neo-innatist to a neo-Whorfian position. The Max Planck was our intellectual playground, and baroque music was where we wandered happily. We confided in each other and received and gave support through the many years, as we followed each other’s lives. And we delighted in playing music together—her flute and my piano. She was a precious person, a loyal friend, and an endlessly ingenious, creative, broad, wise, and beautiful thinker, researcher, writer, teacher. I can’t begin to understand how very much I will miss her.

Melissa was direct (but not aggressive) and thoughtful, both in the ‘reflective’ and in the ‘considerate’ sense. One of the great pleasures of the Child Language Research Forums for me was the chance to spend time talking with Melissa about her work and mine (and to catch up on family).

In one of her presentations at Stanford some years ago she ad-libbed a remark about an idea she attributed to me. Afterwards I told her I liked the idea but had no recollection of saying anything like that. The next day she was there with the citation, to my “Naturalness Arguments in Syntax” (a Chicago Linguistic Society paper from 1968!). Now that’s scholarship.


One Response to “Melissa Bowerman”

  1. Michael Vnuk Says:

    Two senses of “thoughtful” — lovely.

    And you were honest enough to try to disown the attribution — by not taking credit for an idea you thought was not yours, that’s scholarship too.

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