9 September 2006
How can a young man with a scholarly bent be of some service to God and man?
We gather here to celebrate the full and rich life of our good friend, David Thomas. He was born in 1930 and left us this year in March 2006, at the age of 75. We are glad to have known him, to have been a part of his life, and to have enjoyed his friendship. David will be remembered for his outstanding contributions to linguistics and Mon-Khmer languages, for his energetic teaching, for his field work in mainland Southeast Asia, and for his service as mentor to a great number of students and to his junior colleagues.
In Memoriam – by Ken Gregerson
Life Events – short biography of David’s life
· Professor Suwilai Premsrirat
· Professor Theraphan L-Thongkum
· Professor Sujaritlak Deepadung
· Professor Sophana Srichampa
· Carolyn Miller
· Robert Headley
· Hermann Janzen
· Austin Hale
· Eugenia Fuller
· Ken Smith
Some Publications by David D. Thomas
By Ken Gregerson — Colleague (and former President SIL)
David Thomas takes his distinguished place in the pantheon of leading scholars in Mon-Khmer linguistics. It may be difficult to appreciate now in the twenty first century just how little was known about this Southeast Asian family of languages when Dave and his wife Dorothy (Dot) arrived in Vietnam in the 1950’s to begin their research. Respected scholars were still, following Pater Wilhelm Schmidt, classifying Chamic languages as Mon-Khmer— an issue laid to rest by Richard Pittman in 1959. The sub-groupings of Mon-Khmer languages were vague and had little empirical basis. Thomas, acknowledging the great French scholarly tradition in Indochina and celebrating especially the ground-breaking work of Haudricourt, set about with his colleagues both to study in detail and to classify the many Montagnard groups in the region. Dave, along with Prof. Nguyen Dinh Hoa, formed the Linguistic Circle of Saigon, which in turn launched the journal Mon-Khmer Studies in 1964. This unique journal was a ‘labor of love’ which has over the years had several homes (now at Mahidol University in Bangkok), but would surely have died on the vine without Dave’s single-handed persistence.
David Thomas was a student of the classic comparative linguistic method, having studied with some of the best in the field at the University of Pennsylvania. He accurately judged that while reconstructing proto consonants in Mon-Khmer would turn out to be relatively straightforward, the convoluted evolution of register-related vocalic systems in the daughter languages would pose a huge challenge. He was right forty years ago and he is still right today!
An intensely practical man, Dave was also very curious-minded. He was interested in explanations, theory and modeling of empirical discoveries. Early on he explored the notion of (the now quaint) Transformational Paradigm as a way of looking at syntax from new perspectives. Historically, he sought to understand the possible Chamic migration effects that appeared to have ‘split’ South Bahnaric groups from North Bahnaric ones. He was keenly interested in explanations for the variegated manifestations of Mon-Khmer phonological register systems.
Complete field worker
In the spirit of his mentors Kenneth Pike and Richard Pittman, David Thomas committed himself to a holistic approach to his work. Dave and Dorothy Thomas worked on all fronts — linguistics, literacy, anthropology and translation of a variety of literature. In each of these separate disciplines Dave and Dot carried on research and published an extensive body of papers, books, educational manuals and Scriptures in the Chrau language in Vietnam. This habit of scholarly well-roundedness was repeated again in a couple of further decades of work with the Northern Khmer in Thailand.
David’s words to his colleagues still ring in our ears: “When you take a home-leave from your fieldwork always schedule time to ‘sharpen your tools’ before you return overseas to your work.” He encouraged, cajoled, urged his colleagues to attend the Linguistic Society of America and other professional meetings, to enroll in MA and PhD programs with the leading scholars of our home countries, and read technical articles on a regular basis. He practiced what he preached, finishing his PhD in linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania. He used to say that on the field we absolutely needed for our colleagues to come back from their study programs with the world’s best linguists and to bring all the rest of us up to date on what was going on in linguistics. He valued those who took the trouble to learn ‘more than they needed to’ in order to help both themselves and their colleagues to do a more competent job.
David Thomas was instinctively an academic. And he had a knack for encouraging intellectual curiosity in others. He could be an unstinting critic to those who needed (and could handle) it and he was an equally patient encourager to those who required a boost instead of a boot! Dave read hundreds of linguistics manuscripts raising fledgling efforts to professional standard and further sharpening the insights of even the most advanced ones. He was a meticulous editor and an activist advocate that every one of his colleagues, whether a new field worker or an accomplished PhD, could get their paper published in some appropriate academic outlet. Besides being a one-on-one consultant in the field, David Thomas was an effective teacher in the classroom. Perhaps his most lasting university contribution will be the role he and Dot played in spawning new generations of Thai scholars when they helped to lay the academic foundations at Mahidol University for the Institute of Language and Culture for Rural Development. In this way the circle of Dave’s influence continues to spread in service among the ethnic groups of Southeast Asia.
Gentleman as well as scholar
David Thomas was not your hail-fellow-well-met type. He was a quiet gentle man. His non-verbosity may have been partly due to his efforts well into adulthood to overcome the handicap of stuttering. Even so, Dave did not shy away from taking the floor to argue against misguided principles or practices he observed in his organization. Though he chafed under some of the decisions his colleagues made, he was never bombastic in his responses. He could be stubborn in his (typically well-thought out) views, but still never abusive to those with a different point of view. Dave was possessed of a quiet self-confidence, but was devoid of any sense of self-importance. When the project he and his colleagues were engaged in found itself without anyone to do the bookkeeping, he volunteered to sacrifice some of his own research time to serve his fellows in this “mundane” assignment. Talented as he was, his demeanor was more servant, less master.
Man with a mission
A son of missionaries to China in the 1930’s, where he was himself as a child interned during World War II, David Thomas had a sense of larger purpose in life. His question was ‘how can an introverted studious young fellow be of some use to God and his fellow man?” He found his answer in the same place another similar searcher had discovered it when he learned that Kenneth Pike and some of his colleagues were at work unraveling the mysteries of unwritten languages around the world. His intellect was satisfied in studying the unknown, his heart was fulfilled in sharing the tools of literacy and the wisdom of the Scriptures — both things precious to himself — with those who likewise thirsted. Dave’s mission is now finished. His baton is passed to those whom he has mentored.
Professor Dr. Suwilai Premsrirat
Institute of Language and Culture for Rural Development, Mahidol University, Bangkok, Thailand
It is our deepest sorrow to hear that Ajarn Dr. David Thomas has passed away. We have lost a great teacher and consultant. We are grateful to him and his wife, Ajarn Dorothy, who joined the Mahidol staff members in building a solid foundation of linguistics that emphasizes the study of languages of ethnic minorities and field linguistics in Thailand (and also South East Asia). Ajarn David contributed significantly to the young linguist’s appreciation of linguistic research on ethnic minorities and their ability to handle complex problems with confidence. Ajarn David will be greatly missed by all the faculty here at Mahidol’s Institute of Language and Culture for Rural Development and our deepest sympathy goes out to Ajarn Dorothy.
Dean, Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand
We have lost a good person and a great SEA linguist. After working very hard and contributing a great deal, he deserves a peaceful rest with God. We, native speakers of SEA languages, owe him a lot and always feel grateful for his sacrifice and contribution.
Director – Institute of Language and Culture for Rural Development, Mahidol University (Batch 6), Bangkok, Thailand
Dr. David Thomas, highly respected, loved, adored, and always in the thoughts of all of us at the Institute of Language and Culture for Rural Development, Mahidol University, recently left for his heavenly abode. Not only was he my teacher, he also taught other students and teachers right from the beginning of the Institute. He excelled both inside and outside the classroom, especially in field work. I never saw him tired or sick of our continuous nagging on various issues of linguistics. Living with his wife Acharn Dorothy for so long, Dr. David had his entire class as his own children. We are going to miss him a lot.
“Retirement” was not a word in his dictionary. He continued to be active as a scholar, and the current high quality of the Mon-Khmer Studies Journal is the result of his toil. The MKS Journal will not be the same without him. May the Highest Power bless him and receive him well.
Institute of Language and Culture for Rural Development, Mahidol University, Bangkok, Thailand
My memories of Dr. David D. Thomas –
· Gentle kindness to all of his students
· Patience in trying to explain every question that was asked, both linguistically and morally
· Devising a systematic curriculum for the M.A. in Linguistics at the Institute of Language and Culture for Rural Development, Mahidol University
· Creating basic course syllabuses for the Field Methods in Linguistics, Introduction to Syntax, Phonemics, Historical Linguistics, Schools of Syntactic Analysis and Austroasiatic Linguistic Bibliography at the Institute of Language and Culture for Rural Development, Mahidol University
· Compiling a South-East Asia Word List and a Preliminary Grammar Questionnaire – Mahidol University
· Giving me an opportunity to accompany him to the Second International Conference on Austroasiatic Linguistics, Mysore, India in December 1978
· Visiting me in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA in May 1985
· Teaching me to use chopsticks
· A peaceful, generous, gentle man who made the world a better place
Recently we have been thinking through our years in Vietnam, since a student in a seminary in Ho Chi Minh City has asked us to help him with a major paper. He wants to write about the history of the Bru translation project, so that future generations of Bru people will know what it cost for them to get God’s Word in their own language. Dave and Dorothy Thomas figured in a major way in those recollections, as they did in so many of the translation projects in Vietnam.
Dave was significant in almost every aspect of the Bru project, as he was in the development of our professional growth. His encouragement and help in working through language issues and writing up of linguistic data were a significant influence on our careers with SIL.
Dave and Dorothy are remembered fondly at Mahidol University. When we first came to Thailand to work, I remember being somewhat surprised that the linguists at Mahidol were much more willing to cooperate and to invite others to their conferences and seminars than were those from other Thai universities. A colleague responded, “Well of course. They had David Thomas teaching them. So his attitude of ‘We do good work and we share’ influenced them in a major way.”
As President of SIL, I want also to acknowledge the debt we owe as an organization to David. His encouragement of young scholars all over the organization has had a profound effect on our work around the world.
We are grateful to have known Dave and to have worked together with him.
SE Asian Linguist and co-author
I first met Dave in Saigon in 1962 when he gave me some SIL material on Mon-Khmer and Chamic languages of Vietnam.
Several years later, after I had begun work on a Cambodian dictionary, I got back in touch and discussed some ideas I had about the Pearic languages. Dave suggested that we collaborate on a classification of Mon-Khmer. You can't imagine how thrilled I was. I had never had an article published, and now I was working with one of the big names in Southeast Asian linguistics. We carried on a long correspondence and then my wife and I spent 2 days with Dave, Dot and Dave's mother in Philadelphia where Dave was working on his Ph. D. This collaboration resulted in "More on Mon-Khmer Subgroupings" (Lingua 25, 1970).
From that time on, Dave and Dot became friends and mentors. We enjoyed their inferequent visits to Washington and our infrequent visits to the mountains of Western North Carolina.
I cannot imagine the future of Mon-Khmer studies without Dave, but he has helped to give it a firm foundation. Thanks for everything, Dave.
Former colleague at the Institute of Language and Culture for Rural Development, Mahidol University, Bangkok, Thailand
For many years David Thomas was a true friend, pleasant colleague and great example to me. Coming as a doctoral student from a cool distant academic atmosphere in Europe it was a pleasant surprise to be invited to the home of a Professor, which had never happened before in my home land Germany. His caring wife Dorothy served simple but healthy meals while we discussed various questions. He carefully checked through linguistic papers with me including my doctoral dissertation written in English, which is my second language. He and his wife helped me to bring manuscripts from a German abstract philosophical style and elaborate sentence structure to international standards of excellence. He made me work hard on manuscripts of any kind and to polish them, mentioning, by the way, that any good manuscript should be worked over and corrected at least 15 times, to make it ready for a publisher, and to be understood unambiguously in the whole world, especially here in Asia.
I learned from his example earnestness in academic endeavor, humility and respect in relating to others and graciousness and persistency in helping students overcome shortcomings in any area of personal life and service. He had a childlike faith in his heavenly father in every problem situation. He always took a positive viewpoint sharing a new insight on a matter by replying with “Well… For him everything was going well, even if his own words sometimes failed to flow as he might have hoped. He shared with me how he had suffered in his youth here in Asia, faced many hardships, experienced rejection and frustration, but all came out for him for the better. He could inspire hope in the face of adversity, which the Thai students also needed, as they struggled with academic English and western cognitive styles of communication on top of other personal hardships while trying to finish their master’s theses. He designed with us, as international staff, linguistically simplified, culturally relevant and contextualized approaches to research of Phonology and models of grammatical analysis and cultural descriptions of minority languages for Asian students. Till today these students have increased thenumber of volumes of research papers, dictionaries, theses and dissertations on many minority languages of the region, written in those appropriate styles by up-coming Thai scholars, so that they fill the shelves in libraries of local universities.
I never saw him worrying about his own material possessions. He lived a simple, content but meaningful life. He had a fine ear and keen mind for spiritual values of the heart, fine art and music. Though he had his convictions and strong commitments, and we both developed a firm bridge of trust and common ground in our views, he never asked me to join his organization for he believed in the proverb that not all eggs have to be in one basket and that there are unique ways each one can serve with his gifts and capacities in any social structure and cultural environment and so have a significant contribution to the overall society. In his content and unassuming way he has contributed more to the development of cultures of this region and to the fulfillment of their true values than may be seen merely at the academic level.
I feel indebted to him in valuing the worth of an individual, of academic excellence, spiritual integrity and simplicity of life out of a sacrificial and caring heart for those who needed assistance and in the ways in which he emulated these qualities by his life style. I see his life and death as a challenge and legacy to pass on the baton to coming generations of scholars who will need the same kind of source of strength and resources of character which we have seen in him. These are sufficient ingredients and merits that can change the situation in needy minority and majority cultures in Asia by teaching genuine development within with without. I foresee many more projects evolve from such a firm basis.
I count it as a great privilege to have had a friend, and colleague like him, who was closer to me than a brother. I believe that even as we go on into the future many will still continue to be thankful to him for what he and Dorothy’s dedicated service meant to them.
International Linguistics Consultant, SIL
One of David’s finest contributions was his philosophy of consulting. He not only articulated it, he lived it.
While wondering how best to express my tribute to David’s work I went back and keyboarded a copy of his 1987 article, ‘Consultants as Encouragers’ so as to have a copy on my hard disk as a constant companion to guide me in consulting. It is a classic statement, as are Thomas 1977, and 1966 (reprinted in Thomas 2000).
These brief statements provide a better account of David’s consultant heart than anything I could give. Consultants, linguistic consultants especially, could profit from at least an annual rereading of these statements in memory of David.
Quiet, unassuming, kindly, brilliant David Thomas was truly one of SIL's greats — something probably few current SIL folk know. David was one of the main reasons our branch made such remarkable progress in our comparatively short time there. He knew the value of team efforts and he quietly but persistently showed our teams the value of pooling their info at workshops — even though no one wanted to leave their own project long enough to participate in a workshop. Those workshops were one of the main reasons for the good production our branch had in linguistics, literacy and translation. Dave set the example by taking numerous large chunks of time out of his and Dot's projects to further the overall branch objectives -- both as Acting Director and at workshops. Like Ken Smith, Dave could see both the forest and the individual trees in it.
He was able to explain things so that even persons like myself could understand them. And he was always willing to stop what he was doing and help someone.
Dave knew the value of social interaction and always participated in group activities at conferences and other group meetings. He had a good singing voice and usually joined a quartet or trio to produce some good music for our group.
Dave's life and service were complemented and enhanced by his wife, Dottie — and hers by him. They were people of strong steadfast faith, and they both were encouragers and nice to be around.
SE Asia Area Linguist, ChiangMai, Thailand
News of Dave’s Home-going last week has caused me to reflect again on Dave’s life, especially his influence in my life. I want to acknowledge with thanks and appreciation the leadership and example which Dave provided to us all.
The Thomas's welcomed us to Saigon on May 5, 1962, from which point Dave was our field Director. He assigned us to Kontum for Vietnamese language study and a year later to the Sedang language project.
Though Dave’s time as Director ended in 1963, he continued as the Branch Linguistics Committee Chairman and Branch Librarian for the rest of his years in Vietnam and Cambodia, during the transition in the Philippines 1975-78, and subsequently in Thailand. His linguistics workshop assignments were always: conclude with a publishable paper. And, further: One such paper every year! He then took upon himself to get each paper published, never taking “not accepted” as a final verdict. He would try some other publication until eventually everything he received from the workshop participants was published.
With a steady stream of publishable data papers, Dave was instrumental in starting the Mon-Khmer Studies Journal as a joint endeavor between the University of Saigon and SIL. Dave continued to guide the journal after it went to the University of Hawaii and later to Mahidol University in Bangkok.
The final 1978 Bibliography of the Vietnam/Cambodia Branch (by then renamed the Mainland Southeast Asia Branch) lists 681 published technical works by the Branch members, many, if not most, accomplished through Dave’s encouragement and consulting. I was most grateful that Dave, as Volume Editor of the Mon-Khmer Studies Journal, Special Issue No. 1, reviewed during his retirement in North Carolina the entire manuscript of my Sedang Dictionary making many necessary comments for my attention; and then he provided the Foreword.
Another of his strong suits was his suggestion that home furlough should be a time of additional training to prepare oneself better academically for the projects undertaken in Vietnam.
Accordingly, 24 of the Branch members obtained master degrees and eight doctor degrees (including his own from the University of Pennsylvania in 1967), representing 35% of the 84 members involved with the Vietnam program through the 17 years there.
It was with such encouragement that in 1968, at the end of our first furlough, I completed an MA in Linguistics at SIL/UND, and then considered going further during our second furlough. Dave’s experience at the University of Pennsylvania was shared with me. Since I’m more an engineer than a theoretically oriented person, he encouraged me with the information that Penn was not a beholder of a particular linguistics theory, but valued the field research of SILers. He introduced me to Dr. Dell Hymes during the 1967 summer at UND, which paved the way for me serving as his TA for a year. Hymes was then also on my dissertation committee. Dave also told me how to handle the required German exam: during my first year at Penn, he said, take the Beginning German and Advanced German classes offered to PhD candidates – if you don’t pass the exam at the end of the school year, then during the next furlough take the Intermediate German and the Advanced German classes and for sure one would pass the exam. But, he added, linguistics students have an edge on the other humanity students. He was right; I passed the exam that first year.
Dave was the one to allocate many of us to our language projects. In August 1962 he accompanied Marilyn and me with our six-month-old Linda to Kontum. It wasn’t easy because before the truck with our furniture arrived from Saigon, I got food poisoning from eating half of a sour pomelo. Probably reluctantly Dave borrowed some cots locally so that we could move out of the small-town hotel into our unfurnished rented house. The truck arrived on our third anniversary, August 8, 1962; from that moment I was over my sickness and we got the house set up.
In early 1970 Dave and I went over to the coast to locate a Haroi village allocation for Hella Goschnick and Alice Tegenfeldt Mundhenk. That was just the first of a number of trips I took with Dave. We joined Ken Gregerson in January 1973 to fly to Honolulu for the First International Austro-Asiatic Linguistic Conference where we three presented together a co-authored paper about the place of Bahnar in Bahnaric. That was my first linguistics conference, so I learned from Dave about the importance of preparing and presenting papers at such meetings.
During the interim years 1975–78 Dave and I made a number of trips together through Thailand and Malaysia to spawn the SIL work which continues in each country to this day. He was the brains for those trips; he was the visionary. I probably held the money and, as Branch Director, was the spokesman much of the time. Reflecting back to those many weeks traveling together, Dave once noted that as introverts, much of the time spent together was spent in silence (i.e. reading, writing). He regretted that we didn’t talk more to get to know each other better.
Dave and Dot set an example for all of us in accomplishing a balanced project. An estimate was made in 1978 of how much of a full, complete project was accomplished for each of the 23 language projects in Vietnam, including production in linguistics, ethnology, applied linguistics and translation. Their Chrau project headed the list with a rating of 100%. Dave had published a Chrau Grammar and many other linguistic studies, Dot published ethnographic studies, there were literacy materials prepared, and a Chrau New Testament published. The next closest project had a rating of 91%.
Another area of Dave’s leadership was as Executive Committee Chairman. Dave and Dot came to Sabah, Malaysia, for a vacation and we had some long walks and talks together in the Mount Kinabalu National Park. I was a good ear for Dave, and, as Director of the Malaysia Branch, had an entrée with some of those with whom Dave couldn’t easily speak.
He overcame a stuttering problem through the years. We were always amazed that he could sing without stuttering, as in the male quartets in which we sang together! He was a good musician, and we enjoyed his trombone playing.
When we went to Saigon in the Fall of 1963 to await David’s birth, Dave asked me to relieve Pat Bonnell of the Branch accounting for one month, allowing her to take a much deserved vacation. Since I had no formal accounting training that was, for me, an enlightening experience. I saw the full flow of funds from our donors, out to the members, with member finance reports going back . I learned of the basic reports an accountant makes for the management of the Branch. Then Dave set another example: when the Branch didn’t have a fulltime bookkeeper, since Dave was located in the nearest allocation to Saigon of all our teams, he volunteered to do the accounting. Dave and Dot would come into Saigon to do the books; then return to XuanLoc to their language work; and repeated that month after month. That seemed like a ploy to get an accountant assigned to the Branch because to get the attention of those who didn’t want to assign anyone to Vietnam at that time, it was said: “Our top PhD linguist is taking time out of his language project to do the accounting each month. We need an Accountant assigned to our Branch!” Now I also am doing the accounting for our MSEA Group, but very willingly and not missing the aura of linguistics study.
Truly Dave mentored me and many others as we worked and studied together in Southeast Asia. In 1978 as our Mainland Southeast Asia Branch was winding down, I felt that Dave and I ought to go different directions because I had learned so much from him and in many ways was similar to him. And thus it turned out, that I was appointed Director of the newly formed Malaysia Branch and Dot and Dave went to Thailand where the Lord used them both in very significant ways as they honored His name in the university community and among the Northern Khmer people.
So I appreciate Dave for all that he stood for and represented, serving his Lord with spiritual maturity and with an unbridled commitment to good linguistics as a necessary means to giving the Word of God to the peoples in Southeast Asia in languages that they would understand.
Some Publications by David D. Thomas
The SIL Bibliography lists 120 entries for David D. Thomas. In his lifetime David authored or co-authored 15 books, edited or co-edited 11 books or journals, and published 110 articles (14 of which were co-authored).
23. Samermit, Potchanat and David D. Thomas, editors. 1989. Linguistics and worldview: In honor of Professor Kenneth L. Pike: Papers from the academic seminar on ‘‘Linguistics and worldview’’ held at Thammasat University, Bangkok, February 17-19, 1986.