William Diver, Noted Linguist, Is Dead at 74


Photograph: William Diver.


William Diver, a linguistic scholar and professor emeritus at Columbia, died on Aug. 31 while on a sailing vacation in Nantucket. He was 74 years old and lived in Manhattan. Diver retired in 1989 from the Columbia faculty after having taught here since 1955 and had been a full professor since 1968. From 1953 to 1954, he studied in Italy under a Fulbright Grant. He served as the editor of Word, the journal of the Linguistic Circle of New York, from 1956 to 1965, and was a member of the Societe de Linguistique de Paris.

Born in Chicago, Diver received his BA degree from Lawrence College in 1942, his MA in English literature from Harvard and his PhD in comparative Indo-European linguistics at Columbia. During World War II, he served in the United States Navy where he received the Legion of Merit.

Within the field of linguistics, Diver was widely known as the founder of the Columbia school, an iconoclastic approach that challenges traditional grammatical categories such as subject, direct object, reflexive pronoun, etc. Arguing that these categories do not match up consistently with actual linguistic forms even in Greek and Latin, whose speakers invented traditional grammar, he asked instead what meanings are constantly associated with the grammatical forms of different languages. He argued that the structure of language can only be understood by taking into account both its communicative function and the physical and psychological characteristics of its human users.

Diver applied this dual orientation both to grammar and to phonology, the study of speech sounds and their patterning. These ideas were worked out over the last two decades in classes and at informal Thursday evening seminars, attended by students, former students and colleagues, who applied Diver's theory to a wide variety of languages, both European and non-European. His work inspired a number of scholars around the world, and he was invited to lecture in several countries in Europe and Asia as well as at numerous international conferences.

His marriage to the former Bettie Halliday ended in divorce. He is survived by a daughter, Katherine, of Longmont, Colo., and a son, Christopher, of Rochester, N.Y.


Columbia University Record -- October 27, 1995 -- Vol. 21, No. 8