Dr. Ross Saunders (1938-2005)

[From SSILA Newsletter  XXIV:3, October 2005]

Ross Saunders, Professor Emeritus of Linguistics at Simon Fraser University, died on July 28, 2005. He had devoted nearly 40 years to the study of Bella Coola (Nuxalk).

The oldest of three siblings, Ross was born Ross Leslie Saunders III on January 9, 1938 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  His parents were R. Leslie and Anna Saunders.  He grew up in Lebanon, PA, where his father was a musician who taught band at Lebanon High School, gave private lessons, and played professionally.  Ross also became a musician.  He played euphonium and trombone, but the trombone was his primary instrument. While still in high school he became a member of the American Federation of Musicians so that he could join his father in the orchestra pit of the Hershey Arena for performances of the Ice Follies and the circus.  One summer, he played in Fred Waring’s band on a network television program.

Ross attended Pennsylvania State University, graduating in 1961 with a B.A. in Russian and a certificate in Russian Area Studies.  While at Penn State, he worked in the Laboratory of Fossil Spores and Pollen.  His first publication (as “Dmitri R. Saunders”) was a Russian-to-English translation of technical material in the lab.  With the support of an NDEA Title VI grant he went on to Brown University to do graduate work in Slavic linguistics, studying under Henry Kucera and W. Freeman Twaddell.  Under Kucera’s guidance, he became familiar with computers and programming, before the existence of monitors and when communication with a computer was by punch card and printout.  He earned an A.M. in Russian in 1964, and in 1965 he left for Simon Fraser University as an A.B.D. to take up a position on the university’s founding faculty as Instructor of Russian and Slavic Linguistics. He was made Assistant Professor the next year and finished his dissertation on Russian phonology for Brown in 1970, for which he received a dual Ph.D. in Slavic and in Linguistics.

At the time he moved to Canada, Ross married Rozellen Yocum, whom he had known since grade school.  They have four children, Alexei, Nikolai, Larisa, and Grigori or Yosha, Kolya, Lara, and Grisha.  There is one granddaughter, Isis.

Ross spent his entire professional career at SFU.  His academic home there began life as the Department of Modern Languages, modeled on the DML at Cornell University and combining language instruction with literature and linguistics.  Ross not only taught Russian language and Russian linguistics, but taught more broadly in the general linguistics curriculum of the DML.  Ultimately, his courses were those in field methods and in articulatory phonetics, which he continued to teach after his retirement in 2003.

During his first year at SFU, Ross and some of his colleagues became aware of the rich native language environment in which they found themselves in British Columbia.  There were communities of speakers of Salishan languages, albeit with few speakers each, scattered about the province.  Most of these languages had not been studied for decades.  Yielding to the general linguistics side of his training, Ross joined me in initiating a program of research on Bella Coola in 1966 that continued until his death.  (The results of this collaboration are listed in the bibliography below.)  Bella Coola seemed especially attractive because it was reputed to have syllables, words, and whole utterances with no vowels, and Ross was writing his dissertation on the Russian syllable.  Bella Coola does have such words, but it turns out that although the language looks ferocious on paper, it quickly becomes normal to the ear.  So normal, in fact, that we were never motivated to write a paper devoted entirely to the phonetics and phonology of Bella Coola.  Our attention was concentrated on the grammar and ultimately the semantics of the grammar.

Ross held various administrative positions at SFU.  Some of the more notable ones include Chairman of Russian (1976 to 1978), Chairman of the Department of Linguistics (1979 to 1984 and again in 1995), Associate Dean of Arts (1982 to 1985), and Associate Vice-President Academic (1985 to 1992).  For a brief period in 1990 Ross was Acting President of the University.  In the 1980’s he was responsible for the computerization of the campus, being helped by his earlier experience with computers at Penn State.  As Associate Vice-President he oversaw the construction of several multi-million dollar buildings on campus.  Nothing had prepared him for this.  He just did it successfully.

He was less available to do fieldwork while he was an administrator, and when he returned to purely academic life in the early 90’s most of the speakers of Bella Coola with whom he had worked had passed away.  The circumstances for fieldwork had changed, but Ross continued to work on Bella Coola and began compiling a comprehensive dictionary of the language, beginning with the first attestations of the language in the early 19th century.  Including data from all known sources, he created a Bella Coola-English dictionary in database form, now with almost 4000 records.

The earlier momentum in studying Bella Coola was never regained, however, and Ross became interested in other geographic areas.  He started a linguistic field school in Fiji and in 1997, 1999, and 2001 served as its director.  His interest in Austronesian broadened to include two Philippine languages, Itawis and Ibanag.

Ross was not the kind of person to just sit.  Soon after arriving in British Columbia, he took to wood carving and achieved a professional level of competency. When he took up birdwatching, he did it aggressively.  It seemed always to involve trekking rapidly over a very long path.  After his retirement, he and Rozellen traveled widely over North America in pursuit of their hobby.  Shortly, before his death he was able to make a birding trip to Costa Rica.  He had recorded 639 birds before he was forced to stop.

Ross was equally active in amateur hockey.  In 1982, he was one of the founders of the Port Moody Oldtimers Hockey Association, and he was an ardent player until he was no longer able to get on the ice.  He was also active in the Port Moody Amateur Hockey Association as a coach in the Midget and Peewee Leagues.  As player, supporter/organizer, and as coach, Ross was as serious about the sport as he was about his other pursuits.  He attended coaching/officiating school until he completed Level Four (of six possible levels).

Ross died of lung cancer, and a service of remembrance was held on the campus of SFU on September 27, 2005.

Philip W. Davis



(As Dmitri R. Saunders):

  • 1961a. Catalog of Fossil Spores and Pollen, volume 1 (Translation of Palynological Descriptions of Jurassic Era by Naumova), ed. Tate Ames. Laboratory of Fossils Spores and Pollen: University Park, Pennsylvania.
  • 1961b. Catalog of Fossil Spores and Pollen, volume 2 (Palynological Descriptions of Triassic Era by Bolkhovitina), ed. Tate Ames. Laboratory of Fossils Spores and Pollen: University Park, Pennsylvania.
  • 1962. Catalog of Fossil Spores and Pollen, volume 3 (Translation of Palynological Descriptions of the Cretaceoius Era by Bolkhovitina), ed. Tate Ames. Laboratory of Fossils Spores and Pollen: University Park, Pennsylvania.

(As Ross Saunders):

  • 1966. Asyllabic Residues in Russian. Canadian Journal of Linguistics 11:101-108.
  • 1973. (with Philip W. Davis) Lexical Suffix Copying in Bella Coola. Glossa 7:23-52.
  • 1974a. (with Philip W. Davis) Some Problems in Amerindian Second Language Pedagogy. Etudes de linguistique appliquée 15:34-42.
  • 1974b. (with Philip W. Davis) Bella Coola Headbone Nomenclature. Journal of Anthropological Research 30:174-190.
  • 1975a.  (with Philip W. Davis) The Internal Syntax of Bella Coola Lexical Suffixes. IJAL 41:106-113.
  • 1975b. (with Philip W. Davis) Bella Coola Referential Suffixes. IJAL 41:355-368.
  • 1975c. (with Philip W. Davis) Bella Coola Lexical Suffixes. Anthropological Linguistics 17:154-189.
  • 1975d.  (with Philip W. Davis) Bella Coola Nominal Deixis. Language 51:845-858.
  • 1975e.  (with Philip W. Davis) Bella Coola Deictic Usage. Rice University Studies 61:13-35.
  • 1976a.  (with Philip W. Davis) Bella Coola Deictic Roots. IJAL 42:319-330.
  • 1976b.  (with Philip W. Davis) The Syntax of CAUSE and EFFECT in Bella Coola. Glossa 10:155-174.
  • 1977a.  (with Philip W. Davis) Bella Coola su. IJAL 43:211-217.
  • 1977b.  (with T W. Kim) Sentence Connectors in English and Korean. Journal of the Institute for Cross-Cultural Studies (Korea) 10:149 161.
  • 1978a.  (with Philip W. Davis) Bella Coola Syntax. In Linguistic Studies of Native Canada, ed. by Eung-Do Cook and Jonathan Kaye, 37-65. Vancouver, British Columbia: University of British Columbia Press.
  • 1978b.  (with Philip W. Davis) Conjunctive Particle Usage in Bella Coola. Linguistics 207:27-52.
  • 1979a.  (with Philip W. Davis) Anatomical Knowledge among the Bella Coola. Western Canadian Journal of Anthropology 8:136-179.
  • 1979b. (with Philip W. Davis) The Expression of the Cooperative Principle in Bella Coola. In The Victoria Conference on Northwestern Languages, ed. by Barbara S. Efrat, 33-61. Victoria, British Columbia: British Columbia Provincial Museum.
  • 1980.  (with Philip W. Davis) Bella Coola Texts. Victoria: B.C. Provincial Museum.
  • 1982.  (with Philip W. Davis) The Control System of Bella Coola. IJAL 48:1-15.
  • 1984a.  (with Philip W. Davis) Propositional Organization: The s- and si- prefixes in Bella Coola. IJAL 50:208-231.
  • 1984b.  (with Philip W. Davis) An Expression of Coreference in Bella Coola. In Syntax and Semantics 16: The Syntax of Native American Languages, ed. by Eung-Do Cook and Donna B. Gerdts, 149-167. New York: Academic Press.
  • 1985.  (with Philip W. Davis) The Expression of Mood in Bella Coola. In For Gordon H. Fairbanks (= Oceanic Linguistics Special Publication No. 20.), ed. by Veneeta Z. Acson and Richard L. Leed, 243-256. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
  • 1986.  (with Philip W. Davis) Control and Development in Bella Coola. IJAL 52.212-226.
  • 1989a.  (with Philip W. Davis) Lexical Morphemes in Bella Coola. In General and Amerindian Ethnolinguistics: In remembrance of Stanley Newman, ed. by Mary Ritchie Key and Henry H. Hoenigswald, 289-301. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • 1989b.  (with Philip W. Davis) Language and Intelligence: The semantic unity of -m- in Bella Coola. Lingua 78:113-158.
  • 1991. (with Dwight Gardiner) Split Ergativity in Shuswap Salish. Amerindia 16.79-101.
  • 1992a.  (with Philip W. Davis) The Semantics of Negation in Bella Coola. In For Henry Kucera: Studies in Slavic Philology and Computational Linguistics, ed. by Andrew W. Mackie, Tatyana K. McAuley, and Cynthia Simmons, 101-124. Ann Arbor: Michigan Slavic Publications.
  • 1992b.  (with Dwight Gardiner) The Design and Use of Data Base Management Systems for Field Linguists: The SFU Shuswap Project. Amerindia numero special 7:209-228.
  • 1993.  (with Philip W. Davis) Natural Aspect in Bella Coola. In American Indian Linguistics and Ethnography: In Honor of Laurence C. Thompson (= University of Montana, Occasional Papers in Linguistics 10), ed. by Anthony Mattina and Timothy Montler, 265 277. Missoula, MT: UMOPL.
    1997a.  (with Philip W. Davis) A Grammar of Bella Coola (= University of Montana Occasional Papers in Linguistics No. 13.) Missoula, MT: UMOPL.
  • 1997b.  (with Philip W. Davis) The Place of Bella Coola in a Typology of the Relative Clause. In Salish Languages and Linguistics: Current Theoretical and Descriptive Perspectives, edited by Ewa Czaykowska-Higgins and M. Dale Kinkade, 219-234. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • 2005. (with Philip W. Davis) TOPIC in a Bella Coola Text.