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James W. Gair (1927-2016)

James Wells Gair, who was born December 27, 1927, and died at age 88 in Ithaca, New York December 10, 2016, was an eminent linguist whose study of South Asian languages and their underlying relation to other languages of the world was pioneering and paradigm-shifting.

James Gair is predeceased by his first wife, Sylvia Gair; by his daughter, Barbie Friedenberg; by his student and collaborator, the Sri Lankan linguist Prof W. S. Karunatillake, from whose loss in 2012 he never recovered; and by his dear friend, architect Ronald Cassetti. He is survived by Barbara Lust, his wife and scholarly collaborator who has walked, lived, loved and worked side-by-side with him for 38 years; by his son, Alex Gair and his wife, Diane; his grandchildren, Brian and Amelia; by countless friends, students and colleagues, who loved him and learned from him; as well as others, including innumerable strangers on the street to whom he brought light and humor.

After receiving a BA magna cum laude (1949), and then an MA (1956) in English from the University of Buffalo, James Gair attained a PhD in Linguistics (1963) from Cornell University and then an honorary Doctor of Letters from the University of Kelaniya in Sri Lanka (1993), where he was awarded the title of “Sahitya Chakravartin,” that is, “A Benevolent Emperor of Literature.”

Immediately on completing his PhD, James Gair became an assistant professor of linguistics at Cornell, where he remained until his retirement (2000), becoming full professor (1974) and emeritus (2000). Before teaching at Cornell, James Gair also taught at the University of Buffalo (1949-1951 & l954-1958) and the State University of New York at Utica (1951-1954), and served a year in the US Army in Korea. He also taught at the University of Alberta, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Kelaniya, the University of Delhi, the University of Colombo and the University of Kerala, and was a visiting scholar at both Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 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.

As associate chair of the Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics at Cornell (1978-1981), James Gair led the department in integrating generative linguistic theories with strong areal language studies, guiding the hiring of a new generation of scholars who would bridge theoretical linguistics with deep and intensive language studies. James Gair was deeply dedicated to teaching as well as to research, working with numerous students over the years. Many of his students became collaborators and are now placed across the world. He helped to build and sustain Cornell’s South Asia Program, directing it from 1970 to 1977, initiating its ongoing collaboration with Syracuse University. His extensive scholarship steered the program to its continuing commitment to Sri Lankan studies, and its pre-eminent place for Sri Lankan studies in the world, establishing the first and only Sinhala language program in the western hemisphere.

James Gair studied and taught several South Asian languages, with a special 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.

James Gair’s early book, Colloquial Sinhalese Clause Structures (1970) now classic, provided a groundbreaking generative analysis of the yet largely unstudied Sinhala language, leading to the discovery of fundamental properties of syntax, such as focus construction. This moved the field not only to the study of colloquial language in general, as opposed to written or literary texts, and to the productivity of theoretically based analyses of colloquial language, but also to investigations of comparative structures in other widely diverse languages, which continue today. Related publications on Colloquial Sinhalese (with his mentor Gordon Fairbanks and M. W. Sugathapala De Silva) (reprinted 1984) included the most comprehensive elementary pedagogical texts ever produced for the colloquial Sinhala language. Another related publication is a survey of Dhivehi (Maldivian) as a language that was written with Bruce D Cain (2000).

James Gair’s long collaboration with Prof. Karunatillake began with the latter’s studies at Cornell as a graduate student beginning in 1965 and continued throughout their lives. This collaboration resulted in a series of major works, including Literary Sinhala (1974, 1976 comprehensive) and unsurpassed to this day; A New Course in Reading Pali: Entering the Word of the Buddha (1998, reprinted 2001), which remains the most effective introduction to the study of Buddhist literature in Pali; Dhamma Saṃgaho: An Introduction to Pali Literature (2012); A Reader in Colloquial Sinhala (with Karunatillake and Paolillo) (1987); as well as An Introduction to Spoken Tamil (1978) with Professors Suseendirarajah and Karunatillake, providing the first structured teaching material for colloquial Jaffna Tamil of Sri Lanka. Through these books James Gair and W. S. Karunatillake created the conditions for others to learn the languages necessary for scholarship in a wide range of fields, and, moreover, exemplified in their long-lasting collaborations, how co-operative scholarly relations were key to producing cross-cultural scholarship of the highest order.

Their collaboration culminated in the publication of The Sidat Sangara: Text, Translation and Glossary (2013) with notes on the classic 13th century Sinhala grammar and its commentaries. Professors Gair and Karunatillake labored together on this monumental work of scholarship for almost three decades.

The wide knowledge and linguistic understanding reflected in the collaboration between Professors Gair and Karunatillake, with its linkage of theoretical linguistic analyses to deep and profound knowledge of specific languages, led them to discover profoundly similar structural properties as well as distinct differences across languages. These discoveries often revealed phenomena unknown through studies of English or European languages alone, and challenged current theoretical assumptions about the nature of language. This work has had wide consequences not only for the development of theoretical linguistics and implications for discovery of language universals, but also for language typology, and studies of language contact and change.

In addition, the depth and scope of Professor James Gair’s work led to major contributions to language pedagogy, since he and his collaborators developed one of the most extensive bodies of language teaching materials for the languages he was teaching. The pedagogical materials he and his analyses created are foundational, have trained generations of scholars, and remain in use as exemplary resources in language learning.

James Gair’s work has also contributed significantly to the basic scientific study of both first and second language acquisition, as well as language loss in dementia, and related cognitive science; he was a major contributor to research in each of these areas and to relevant cognitive science networks.

Known for his strength of mind, his incisiveness and unmatched ability to strip away from obfuscation to the underlying critical point of any proposal, Professor Gair always saw both sides of an argument, completely without prejudice. Among the rarest of brilliant intellects, Professor Gair was marked by an unsurpassed deep humanity. His study of language learning involved not only the intricacies of grammar, but also the country, its culture, including its food, and mostly its people.

James Gair was a lover of words. These included the words of Wallace Stevens whose poetry (MA thesis) until the end remained in his mind verbatim with deep understanding, and of Shakespeare whom he quoted with perfect relevance on his deathbed. They also included the words of interaction with everyone his path crossed, regardless of their role in life, understanding them as uniquely significant individuals, insisting on knowing them by name, eager to share cultures, languages and wit with each person he met.

James Gair’s intensely inquisitive mind led him to voracious reading, passionate hobbies of cooking (he became a master South Asian chef, with a Sri Lankan cookbook underway when he died), culinary herbs, travel, cars, as well as the intense enjoyment of children riding carousels.

The immense knowledge and understanding housed in James Gair’s mind, which he freely shared, were unfathomable to those who knew him. The integration of intellect and humanity was unsurpassed.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be sent to the Cornell University Library James Wells Gair Endowment (Check payable to Cornell Library c/o Jennifer Sawyer, Director of Library Affairs and Development, 130 E Seneca St, Ithaca NY 14850) and/or to Hospicare, Ithaca.

A memorial is planned for spring 2017. The Ness-Sibley Funeral Home in Trumansburg is assisting the family.