John Asher Dunn (1939–2017)

John Asher Dunn, a long-time researcher in the Tsimshian (Sm’algyax) language, died on July 4, 2017 in Oklahoma City.  He was born June 19, 1939.  He earned a BA degree in Philosophy from St. John’s College in Collegeville, MN and received his PhD in Linguistic Anthropology from the University of New Mexico in 1969.  He taught at Oregon State University and the University of Northern British Columbia before embarking on a long career at the University of Oklahoma, serving as a professor and eventually Chair of the Department of Anthropology before joining the Department of Modern Languages, Literatures and Linguistics to found the BA degree in Linguistics.  He retired from OU in 1999, but continued to assist the program by teaching linguistics courses until his health would no longer permit it.

After retirement, John immersed himself in the contemplative life that he had earlier engaged in as a postulant monk at St. Gregory’s Abbey in Shawnee OK and St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville.  He joined the Community of Solitude and took the name Brother Cuthbert, taking his final vows in 2014.

John studied the Tsimshianic languages of British Columbia for decades, spending summers there to work with speakers to create dictionaries, grammars, and pedagogical materials for those communities.  His major scholarly works are A Reference Grammar for the Coast Tsimshian Language (1979) and Sm’algyax:  A Reference Dictionary and Grammar for the Coast Tsimshian Language (1995).  He also developed and published locally a set of six books for native schoolchildren, Teachings of Our Grandfathers.

Beginning in the 1990s and continuing for the rest of his life, John worked on the linguistic justification for his theory that the Tsimshianic languages have shared roots with Proto-Indo-European.  He maintained a website for his research, and published a summary of this work, A Tsimshian Proto-Indo-European Comparative Lexicon in 2017, weeks before his death.  As Brother Cuthbert, he completed his work in his life-long interest in Gregorian chant and plainsong with the publication of Cuthbert’s Little Plainsong Psalter, also in 2017.

John Asher Dunn was a brilliant and beloved teacher: the Linguistics achievement award at OU is named for him. He was a gentle and modest colleague who made unique contributions to American languages.

Submitted by Marcia Haag, Professor of Linguistics, University of Oklahoma

Updated: August 15, 2018 — 2:20 am