The sound of rain, softly falling (Tucker Childs, 1948-2021)

News just reached me that we have lost a dear colleague and one of the people responsible for introducing the world of linguistics to African ideophones: George Tucker Childs, 1948-2021.

Tucker was a cheerful presence in the field of African linguistics and a towering figure in the subfield that he and I had in common, ideophone studies. His groundbreaking PhD dissertation on Kisi in 1988 was chock-full of these sparkling words evocative of sensory imagery, and the topic would never lose his interest. He was one of the pioneers of the sociolinguistic study of ideophones and his 1994 review of African ideophones remains one of the most cited chapters of a famed volume on Sound Symbolism. One of his last academic publications was a chapter in the 2019 proceedings of an international workshop on ideophones in which he, characteristically, combined acute fieldwork-based observations with perceptive questions for future research.

We met several times over the years and corresponded quite a bit, sometimes about new work, sometimes about the future of African linguistics and how to ensure better representation of its diversity. “This is an issue I wrestle with all the time, how best to encourage young [authors], especially African, to submit”, he wrote to me in his capacity as the editor of one of the specialist journals in the field. In Tucker we have lost an adventurous colleague driven by a sense of wonder and by a passion for the documentation and revitalization of endangered languages.

Tucker’s emails often started with a salutation that included a description of his location and the weather conditions — which, when they came from Portland, often meant rain. I enclose a rendition by artist Joanna Taylor of an evocative Kisi ideophone that appears in Tucker’s PhD thesis: bíààà ‘the sound of rain, softly falling’. Words are a poor substitute for human contact, but I wish his loved ones the serenity evoked by the sound of nourishing rain.

Note: If you want to write your condolences or share your memories of Tucker, his family set up a special website here.

Bibliography of Tucker Child’s ideophone-related publications (see Google Scholar)

  • Childs, G. Tucker. 1988a. The phonology and morphology of Kisi. University of California, Berkeley. (PhD dissertation.)
  • Childs, G. Tucker. 1988b. The phonology of Kisi ideophones. Journal of African Languages and Linguistics 10(2). 165–190. (doi:10.1515/jall.1988.10.2.165)
  • Childs, G. Tucker. 1989. Where do ideophones come from? Studies in the Linguistic Sciences 19(2). 55–76.
  • Childs, G. Tucker. 1994a. African Ideophones. In Hinton, Leanne & Nichols, Johanna & Ohala, John J. (eds.), Sound Symbolism, 178–204. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Childs, G. Tucker. 1994b. Expressiveness in contact situations: the fate of African ideophones. Journal of Pidgin and Creole languages 9(2). 257–282.
  • Childs, G. Tucker. 1996. Where have all the ideophones gone? The death of a word category in Zulu. Toronto Working Papers in Linguistics 15. 81–103.
  • Childs, G. Tucker. 2001. Research on Ideophones, Whither Hence? The Need for a Social Theory of Ideophones. In Voeltz, F. K. Erhard & Kilian-Hatz, Christa (eds.), Ideophones, 63–73. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
  • Childs, G. Tucker. 2003. An Introduction to African Languages. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
  • Childs, G. Tucker. 2014. Constraints on violating constraints: How languages reconcile the twin dicta of “Be different” and “Be recognizably language.” Pragmatics and Society 5(3). 341–354. (doi:10.1075/ps.5.3.02chi)
  • Childs, G. Tucker. 2018. Forty-plus years before the mast: My experiences as a field linguist. In Sarvasy, Hannah & Forker, Diana (eds.), Word Hunters: Field linguists on fieldwork. John Benjamins Publishing Company.
  • Childs, G. Tucker. 2019. Ideophones as a measure of multilingualism. In Akita, Kimi & Pardeshi, Prashant (eds.), Iconicity in Language and Literature, vol. 16, 303–322. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company. (doi:10.1075/ill.16.13tuc)

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