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Stanford Report, May 19, 1999

Memorial Resolution: Charles A. Ferguson


Charles Albert Ferguson was born in Philadelphia, PA. An early curiosity for language, system, and order led him to explore foreign languages through Oriental Studies at the University of Pennsylvania (BA 1942, MA 1943 with a thesis on the Moroccan Arabic Verb; PhD 1945 with a dissertation on Standard Colloquial Bengali).

After graduating, he joined the Foreign Service Institute and worked in the Middle East from 1946-1955, where he established and directed the Foreign Service Institute Area and Language School attached to the American Embassy, Beirut. In the early fifties he taught at Georgetown University's Institute of Languages and Linguistics, Deccan College in India, and Harvard University's Center for Middle Eastern Studies.

Ferguson's career, though marked by a range of interests in language, was largely characterized by a focus on applied linguistics. He left teaching Arabic at Harvard in 1959 to found and direct the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington, DC. He led the Center in building close ties with international, national, and regional needs related especially to language teaching, literacy, and language planning. Many lasting achievements mark his tenure at the Center: development of TOEFL, a test of English language skills used around the world and administered by the Educational Testing Service; establishment of the Round Table on Language for periodic discussion of problems faced by individuals working across language barriers at organizations such as the Foreign Service and World Bank; cooperative agreements among U. S. universities to ensure teaching of "special languages" (e.g., indigenous languages often needed by social scientists and others doing work in Africa, Asia, and Latin America); and the groundwork for establishing several current clearing houses on information related to language. After he left the Center in 1967 to establish the Committee (later the Department) of Linguistics at Stanford, he continued his involvement in applied linguistics through helping to launch the National Foreign Language Center and the Association of Teachers of Arabic.

Ferguson made fundamental pioneering contributions to several other fields, including: language universals, first and second language development, language use in society, and language change. Several of his articles have for decades been foundational classics in these fields and his activities were fundamental in establishing Stanford as the leader and in many instances the initiator in these areas.

In a now famous conference held in 1961 at Dobbs Ferry he gave a path breaking paper in which he detailed fifteen universals about nasal vowels, including some generalizations about change. He subsequently played a major role at Stanford in helping to initiate the project on Language Universals, supported by the National Research Council. This project published twenty volumes of Working Papers in Language Universals. Highlights were published in 1978 by Stanford University Press in a four volume collection called Universals of Human Language, of which he was one of the editors. In an article in the first of these volumes he characterized the revolutionary significance of the development of research on universals of language, and pointed out that a major change had occurred in the orientation of the field of linguistics in the preceding fifteen years or so due to this work. At the time when the language universals movement appeared, an approach which is generally called American structuralism ruled the field in the United States. It was descriptive and prided itself on the rigor of its method. However, it refrained from any attempt to compare the structure of languages as a whole and arrive at generalizations about languages. It also strictly separated the study of synchronic description from that of historical change or considered the former to be fundamental. Work on universals challenged both of these methodological and theoretical constraints.

After coming to Stanford, Ferguson was also instrumental in organizing the Phonology Archive, a computer-based body of materials on the sound structure of a large sample of the world's languages. Equally path- breaking was his work on child language acquisition which led to major research projects such as the NSF-funded project "From Babbling to Language".

A third field which Ferguson helped establish in this country is the study of language and society; here one of his fundamental insights was that varieties of a language are often in what he called a "diglossic" relationship: speakers internalize the ability to use one variety in formal settings such as lectures and official news casts, another in informal settings such as radio talk shows. Most current work on bidialectalism and bilingualism finds its roots in this seminal article, published in 1959. He also studied the stylistic characteristics of sports-caster talk, which was the initiative for work in the field of discursive practices in different situations.

He trained a large number of linguists who themselves have gone on to be pioneers in these sub-fields of linguistics. One of his greatest legacies was enabling others to be willing to go against the prevailing stream to push new ways of understanding linguistic phenomena.

Despite all these accomplishments, Charles Ferguson was a man of extraordinary modesty. He was known for incredible patience. Even in the roughest times he was always gentle, reasoned, and serene, and had great faith in people. Archbishop Ramsey once said: "Reason is an action of the mind; knowledge is a possession of the mind; but faith is an attitude of the person. It means you are prepared to stake yourself on something being so". He might well have been thinking of Charles Ferguson, who was in every sense a man of reason, of knowledge, and of faith. One of his lifelong passions was the study of saints' lives, and language and religion.

He is survived by his wife, Shirley Brice Heath, Professor of English and Linguistics at Stanford, four children and eight grandchildren.


Elizabeth Closs Traugott, Chair

Joseph H. Greenberg

Shirley Brice Heath