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James W. Gair, linguistics professor emeritus, dies at 88

January 17, 2017

James Wells Gair, left, and longtime collaborator, linguist W.S. Karunatillake/Photo provided

James Wells Gair, Ph.D. ’63, professor emeritus of linguistics who throughout a long and distinguished career produced groundbreaking work on South Asian languages and their relation to other languages, died Dec. 10 in Ithaca. He was 88.

“Jim Gair was in many ways the paradigmatic Cornell linguist,” said John Whitman, chair and professor of linguistics. “He had a language passion for Sinhala, the language of Sri Lanka, and he threw himself entirely into it, teaching the language, writing textbooks for its learners, and analyzing both the colloquial language and its classical texts.

“But at the same time he was a contributor to linguistic theory, invested in current research and constantly on the lookout for important properties of language as a human faculty.”

Gair joined the Cornell linguistics faculty upon earning his doctorate in 1963. He became a full professor in 1974 and professor emeritus in 2000. He also taught at several U.S. and international universities and served a year in the U.S. Army in Korea. He received bachelor’s (1949) and master’s (1956) degrees from the University at Buffalo.

As associate chair of the Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics from 1978 to 1981, Gair led the integration of generative linguistic theories with area language studies, guiding the hiring of a new generation of scholars who would bridge theoretical linguistics with intensive language studies.

He helped to build and sustain Cornell’s South Asia Program, directing it from 1970 to 1977. His scholarship steered the program to its continuing commitment to Sri Lankan studies and its preeminent place for Sri Lankan studies in the world, establishing the first and only Sinhala language program in the Western Hemisphere.

“Jim Gair pioneered the study and teaching of the Sinhala language in the United States and established Cornell as a center for Sri Lankan studies beginning in the 1960s,” said Bonnie G. MacDougall ’62, M.A. ’65, Ph.D. ’73, Cornell professor emerita of architecture. “As a director of the Cornell South Asia Program he made important contributions to shaping a broad Cornell program in area studies. I am grateful having been one of his very first Sinhala students, a colleague and a friend.”

Gair studied and taught several South Asian languages, with an emphasis on Sinhala and Tamil, but also including Hindi, Dhivehi, Malayalam and Pali, the canonical language of Theravada Buddhism, as well as various stages of English language development and Blackfoot. His books include “Colloquial Sinhalese Clause Structures” (1970), “A New Course in Reading Pali: Entering the Word of the Buddha (1998) and “The Sidat Sangara: Text, Translation and Glossary” (2013), written with longtime collaborator and former student, Sri Lankan linguist W.S. Karunatillake.

“Jim Gair was eminent in Sinhala language and area studies not just within the U.S., but also internationally,” said Norman Uphoff, professor emeritus of government and international agriculture. “His Sinhala text was widely used around the world, and I personally benefited from it when studying the language for two years in preparation for spending a sabbatical year in Sri Lanka. My wife and I had the great good fortune to have Jim as our language teacher for one of those two years, gaining a lot from his rich knowledge of the country as well as its language.”

Gair’s work led to major contributions in the field of language pedagogy; pedagogical materials he and his collaborators created have trained generations of scholars and remain in use. His work has also contributed significantly to the scientific study of first and second language acquisition, language loss in dementia and related cognitive science. He received several Fulbright awards for study in Sri Lanka, as well as awards from the American Institute of Indian Studies, the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. He was a founding member of the Association for Asian Studies, and served on the board of directors for the American Institute for Sri Lankan Studies.

He is survived by his widow, Barbara Lust, professor of human development and a member of the fields of cognitive science, linguistics and psychology, a son and two grandchildren. A memorial is planned for the spring.

Donations can be made to the Cornell University Library James Wells Gair Endowment (check payable to Cornell Library c/o Jennifer Sawyers, director of Library Affairs and Development, 130 E. Seneca St., Ithaca, NY 14850) or to Ithaca Hospicare.

This obituary was adapted from one published on the South Asia Program website. This story also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.

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