Dear Lise and Susie,
This email to you has been germinating for several years.
I was a student of your father's— or as I knew him,"Professor Bright"— at UCLA in the early 1970s.
Since reading his 2006 obituary in the Times, I have wanted to write you a note expressing my condolences and telling Dr. Bright stories.
I can see the bandana'ed man as I write. In fact, even without knowing him, he was one of the reasons I chose UCLA for grad school.
After months of fieldwork where I would "run out of questions," I knew something was missing and that I needed to go to graduate school. UCLA came out on top because I wanted to study Nahuatl to do fieldwork with contemporary Aztecs, whose embroidery I had fallen in love with. This may seem a roundabout way to learn a language but you have enter one door or another.
The class was filled with serious people. One, in particular, was a professor, Dr. Lockhart, who wrote ethno-history and was deep into codices and all sorts of colonial Mexican research. Everyone loved going to class. I don't even remember if we took it for credit or not! It was a special time each week when we got to study together.
I was probably the youngest and least experienced in the class but my motivation was fun and alive. Dr. Bright let me know that he thought contemporary ethnography was still cool, even as other anthro types were beginning to think less of it. I recall taking him paliacates, Mexican bandanas, which come in great colors in additional to red. I think he liked them as his "dress-up" bandanas.
Anyhow, there is one day I shall never forget. Dr. Bright had asked us to translate a series of sentences into Nahuatl. We went around the table reading them. Each student would comment or correct the other. Not a big deal.
When it was my turn, I read my sentences. Fine. Dr. Bright asked me to read them again, and I think a third time, too. No grammatical errors. What was the matter?
He said he was just listening carefully to figure out the "accent that I had in Nahuatl." It wasn't English, not Spanish, not French.
He was stumped. "Jill, I just can't figure out what your accent in Nahuatl is."
"Oh, Dr. Bright, it's easy. It's Yiddish."
The man went crazy with laughter!
Later, I did go on to do research in a Nahuatl-speaking village in highland Puebla, learned an enormous amount of Nahuatl, and thought of him often. It was exactly like knowing "Latin in Florence" because everything helped-- to the point that people in the village actually thought I understood them all the time! Hardly the case, but it was a real icebreaker and essential to the whole endeavor.
In the course of writing my dissertation, I was back at UCLA on several occasions and always had the good fortune to have lunch or a coffee with Dr. Bright. Moments to treasure, for sure. Yiddish was the key to a special communication as it has been for countless others.
For whatever comfort it may be to you, his teaching and spirit infused my years at UCLA with that real "joy of learning" that one hears about. As much as I went to school, college, grad school and thought I liked it, at UCLA, I loved it. Dr. Bright was so special to me. It's amazing how great a gal can feel when a prof asks her to have coffee one day. Simple but a giant memory.
Thank you for letting me tell you this story. In the never-too-late vein, I am reminded of the Hasidic saying: "When you say the name of a person who has died, the person comes to life for that moment."
Bill was a marvelous professor and inspiration to me. I am truly sad that he is no longer among the living but he is very much a part of wonderful memories of the joy of learning at UCLA.
All the best with fond memories,
My stepmother Lise and I were delighted to hear Jill's stories and we both wrote her back.
I told her that I also remember my dad's Nahuatl class because he said it was his very favorite, the one class he really looked forward to every week— during a time when he was seriously burnt out on university politics.
I told her he'd been wearing bandanas for as long as I could remember (see my 1959 photo above!)
She replied to me again:
Wow; your response made my day, too! I mean, how many people really took Nahuatl who wanted to SPEAK it on the street?
I can't tell you have many times here in New York, by just sprinkling a few words of Nahuatl in my daily conversation, I've stopped people in their tracks. I mean, deer in headlights, stopped!
It isn't all that exotic, since the largest group of Mexicans to immigrate to NYC are from Puebla and Guerrero, both of which are states with large numbers of Nahuatl-speakers.
Mostly, it is their grandparents who speak the language, but many still speak a little and some are fluent.
I remember one night in a Belgian restaurant, I asked the waiter in Spanish for water. We chatted and he heard my Mexican accent. Something clicked when he said the name of his village, which I had been to, so I asked him in Nahuatl (also just called "Mexicano") if he spoke Mexicano.
Glad he wasn't carrying a tray of glasses! He was stunned and a huge grin spread across his face. Pity I didn't have more vocabulary at my fingertips but it was in the mid-70s that I did fieldwork in his region!
Nowadays I curate exhibitions related to the Holocaust and pre-war Jewish culture. That's the direction I took anthropology— museums, exhibitions, documentary films. I haven't done much work in Mexico or Latin America lately, but it is still the area I love. I'd rather just go to Mexico and visit friends and keep learning than work there. "Oaxaca to Poland" might sound pretty drastic but wonderful people and adventures are everywhere with the right head on your shoulders.
And besides, a lot of Poles migrated to Mexico in the '40s and it's a real kick to tell them I've been to their hometowns— the reverse of the NYC waiter!— like Sosnowiec!
All the best and thank you for letting me reminisce.
Bill's obit in the NYTimes, by Margalit Fox:
William Bright, an internationally renowned linguist who spent more than half a century inventorying the vanishing riches of the indigenous languages of the United States, died on Oct. 15 in Louisville, Colo. He was 78 and lived in Boulder, Colo.
The cause was a brain tumor, said his daughter, Susie Bright, the well-known writer of erotica.
At his death, Mr. Bright was professor adjoint of linguistics at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He was also emeritus professor of linguistics and anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he taught from 1959 to 1988.
An authority on the native languages and cultures of California, Mr. Bright was known in particular for his work on Karuk (also spelled Karok), an American Indian language from the northwest part of the state. Shortly before his death, in recognition of his efforts to document and preserve the language, he was made an honorary member of the Karuk tribe, the first outsider to be so honored.
His books include “American Indian Linguistics and Literature” (Mouton, 1984); “A Coyote Reader” (University of California, 1993); “1,500 California Place Names: Their Origin and Meaning” (University of California, 1998); and “Native American Placenames of the United States” (University of Oklahoma, 2004).
Mr. Bright’s approach to the study of language was one seldom seen nowadays. With the ascendance of Noam Chomsky in the late 1950’s, linguistics shifted its focus from documenting language as an artifact of human culture to analyzing it as a window onto human cognition.
But to Mr. Bright, language was inseparable from its cultural context, which might include songs, poetry, stories and everyday conversation. And so, lugging unwieldy recording devices, he continued to make forays into traditional communities around the world, sitting down with native speakers and eliciting words, phrases and sentences.
Among the languages on which he worked were Nahuatl, an Aztec language of Mexico; Cakchiquel, of Guatemala; Luiseño, Ute, Wishram and Yurok, languages of the Western United States; and Lushai, Kannada, Tamil and Tulu, languages of the Indian subcontinent.
William Oliver Bright was born on Aug. 13, 1928, in Oxnard, Calif. He received a bachelor’s degree in linguistics from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1949. After a stint in Army intelligence, he earned a doctorate in linguistics from Berkeley in 1955.
He began his fieldwork among the Karuk in 1949. At the time, their language was a tattered remnant of its former splendor, spoken by just a handful of elders. Since encounters with Europeans had rarely ended well for the Karuk, the community had little reason to welcome an outsider.
But Bill Bright was deferential, curious and, at 21, scarcely more than a boy. He was also visibly homesick. The Karuk grandmothers took him in, baking him cookies and cakes and sharing their language. They named him Uhyanapatanvaanich, “little word-asker.”
In 1957, Mr. Bright published “The Karok Language” (University of California), a detailed description of the language and its structure. Last year, the tribe published a Karuk dictionary, compiled by Mr. Bright and Susan Gehr. Today, Karuk children learn the language in tribal schools.
Mr. Bright was divorced twice and widowed twice. From his first marriage, he is survived by his daughter, Susannah (known as Susie), of Santa Cruz, Calif. Also surviving are his wife, Lise Menn, a professor of linguistics at the University of Colorado; two stepsons, Stephen Menn of Montreal and Joseph Menn of Los Angeles; one grandchild; and two step-grandchildren.
His other books include “The World’s Writing Systems” (Oxford University, 1996), which he edited with Peter T. Daniels; and the International Encyclopedia of Linguistics (Oxford University, 1992), of which he was editor in chief. From 1966 to 1987, Mr. Bright was the editor of Language, the field’s flagship journal.
The professor was also a meticulous reader of all his daughter’s manuscripts. He displayed the finished products — among them “Susie Bright’s Sexual State of the Union” and “Mommy’s Little Girl: On Sex, Motherhood, Porn and Cherry Pie” — proudly on his shelves at home.