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Melissa Bowerman -


Eve V. Clark

Dear friends and colleagues,

It’s with great personal sadness that I announce the death of Melissa Bowerman, on 31 October 2011, in Nijmegen, The Netherlands.

For the past forty years Melissa Bowerman has been a central force in the field of child language development, contributing influential data and theory on the relations between language and cognition in both children and adults. She was one of the first to look closely at what children’s errors could reveal about semantic development and published classic studies of her own children’s causative verbs and prepositional choices in locative constructions. What she discovered from her analyses was that children extract systematic but quite abstract patterns in the semantic structure of the language being acquired. Moreover, some errors emerge rather late, after a period of apparently correct usage. This strongly suggested that children don’t come to language with ready-made meanings to attach to word-forms. Rather, they have to discover those patterns first and then put them to use.

Bowerman was always interdisciplinary in her work: she drew on findings from developmental psychology, cognitive and linguistic anthropology, and linguistics. She was a pioneer in the use of experimental and ethnographic data, across a range of languages, as she examined how language shapes both cognitive and linguistic development in the young child, and how different languages subtly influence adult categorization of such spatial relations as containment and support. She was an innovator in the methods she used in her research, using correspondence analysis and multidimensional scaling to analyze data as she explored the conceptual bases of semantic categories. She made especially important contributions in her research on spatial cognition and language, linguistic argument structure, event representation, and children’s emerging linguistic expressions of causality. On the theoretical side, she always sought to disentangle what might be innate from what could be learned in first language acquisition, and her insights as well as her findings cast new light on typology, language universals, and human cognition. Throughout her life, she focussed on how individual languages could have particular effects on the course and content of language development, and what the implications were for adult mental life.

Melissa Bowerman had a perpetually inquiring mind, and was fascinated by all kinds of domains –– from birds, plants, knots, and dreams to her flute music. She would always find a new angle on the domain under discussion and pursue it with curiosity and interest, so lunchtimes at the Max-Planck- Institute of Psycholinguistics where she spent most of her professional life, were a constant source of enjoyment for whoever was there. She was modest, generous, lucid, and always scholarly in her approach.

She is survived by her husband Wijbrandt van Schuur, her three daughters––Christy, Eva, and Claartje––and four grandchildren.

Eve V. Clark
Stanford University
President, International Association for the Study of Child Language


Melissa was a student of Roger Brown at Harvard, and then a professor at the University of Kansas. She came to the Netherlands for a year at NIAS and was then ‘captured’ by the MPI, where she was employed from 1982 to 2007. She then held an emeritus position with the institute for the years that followed. She was also Honorary Professor at the Free University of Amsterdam. She was the supervisor of many PhD students at the Institute, in Amsterdam, and previously at the University of Kansas, many of whom now hold chairs in the field of language acquisition around the world.

Melissa had a major influence on many other students and young postdocs, and not only in the MPI, but throughout the Nijmegen research environment, and worldwide through the many lectures she gave abroad. Only last year she gave a set of 10 lectures in China, which will be edited to form a volume.  A sense of her impact on the field, and her special qualities as friend and colleague,  can best be obtained from the Festschrift in her honour, edited by Virginia Gathercole:
Routes to Language: Studies in Honor of Melissa Bowerman
(London and New York: Psychology Press, 2008).

Neither the MPI for Psycholinguistics nor language acquisition research worldwide would have been the same without her continuing influence over many years. We at the Institute will miss her warmth and humour and guidance sorely.

Your tribute to Melissa Bowerman can be left here

Last checked 2012-08-02
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Picture Melissa Bowerman

Melissa Bowerman

Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics
PO Box 310
6500 AH Nijmegen
The Netherlands