William O. Bright, 78; UCLA Linguist Worked to Preserve a Tribal Language

From Times Staff Reports

William O. Bright, a linguist who studied Native American tongues and worked to preserve the language of California’s Karuk tribe, died Sunday of a brain tumor at a hospice near his home in Boulder, Colo. He was 78.

Bright was among the first professors of linguistics at UCLA, where he taught for 29 years, retiring in 1988. For 21 years, through 1987, he was editor of Language, the journal of the Linguistic Society of America.

He wrote more than 200 books, articles and reviews, including several dictionaries of Native American languages that were on the brink of disappearing and books on the origin of place names in California and elsewhere.

His work preserving the Karuk language, begun at age 21, ultimately led the tribe to make Bright its first honorary member in the days before his death.


“He had an appreciation of the larger problems we were facing, and he used his talents not just for his own benefit but for our benefit as well,” said Susan Gehr, Karuk Language Program director, who was authorized to speak for the tribe.

“When Karuks felt emboldened to revitalize our language and culture,” she said, “he actively supported us by visiting many times to do workshops and consult with Karuk individuals on anything related to the Karuk language that we wished.”

William Oliver Bright was born Aug. 13, 1928, in Oxnard. His mother was a homemaker, and his father was a butcher who turned to chicken farming.

Bright entered UC Berkeley and was taking summer courses in Mexico City when he became interested in the Aztec language.

He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in linguistics in 1949.

Drafted by the Army in 1952, Bright was assigned to a military intelligence unit in Germany.

After returning to Berkeley for a doctoral dissertation on the Karuk, he taught in India and at the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute before joining the faculty at UCLA in 1959.

Bright worked in several areas of linguistics, including sociolinguistics, which examines language in a social context.


Twice widowed and twice divorced, he is survived by his fifth wife, University of Colorado linguistics professor Lise Menn; a daughter, Santa Cruz erotica writer and essayist Susie Bright; granddaughter Aretha Bright; and stepsons Stephen Menn, a philosophy professor at McGill University in Montreal, and Joseph Menn, a staff writer at the Los Angeles Times.

In lieu of flowers, Lise Menn requested donations to fund the newly created Bill Bright Award for research, in care of the Endangered Language Fund, 300 George St., Suite 900, New Haven, CT 06511, or to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Memorial services are to be be held at the University of Colorado early next month and at the January meeting of the Linguistic Society of America in Anaheim.