William J. Gedney

William J. Gedney (born April 4, 1915 in Orchards, Washington; died November 14, 1999 in Ann Arbor, Michigan) was an American linguist and Southeast Asian language specialist. Gedney did extensive work relating to Tai historical linguistics.

William J. Gedney
Born(1915-04-04)April 4, 1915
DiedNovember 14, 1999(1999-11-14) (aged 84)
Choy Manachip
(m. 1953; died 1981)
Academic background
ThesisIndic Loanwords in Spoken Thai (1947)
Academic advisorsFranklin Edgerton
Academic work
Main interests


Gedney was born in Orchards, Washington, and spent his childhood there. He was the son of John Marshall Gedney and Viola Gedney (nee Woster), the descendants of English immigrants. Gedney's father died of pneumonia in 1918, when Gedney was three years old. In 1935, Gedney graduated magna cum laude from Whitman College. After graduation, Gedney lived in Leavenworth, Washington and worked as a high school English teacher. During the summers, he occupied himself seriously with linguistics. After the outbreak of the Second World War, he was drafted into the army in August 1942 and assigned to the Army Language Unit in New York City, where he began to work with the Thai language. During this period in New York he also began doctoral studies in Sanskrit at Yale University as a student of Franklin Edgerton. He completed his PhD in 1947, with the dissertation Indic Loanwords in Spoken Thai. He then moved to Thailand, where he studied Thai language and literature, working with some of the most important scholars of the country. He met Choy Manachip, a native of Ayutthaya Province, there in Thailand, and they wed in 1953. Mrs. Gedney was one of the native speakers of Thai consulted for the Thai grammars written by Richard B. Noss (1954, expanded 1964). Gedney was professor of linguistics at the University of Ceylon 195960, then in 1960 took a position teaching linguistics and Thai at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he was in the English department until a department of linguistics was formed there in 1963. In his early years at Michigan, he helped develop the first Thai language training program for the Peace Corps.

Gedney taught at the University of Michigan until his retirement in 1980, and served as chair of the linguistics department from 197275. During his career, Gedney was active in the Linguistic Society of America, the American Oriental Society, the Siam Society, the Association for Asian Studies and Southeast Asian Linguistics Society. In 1981, he served as vice president of the American Oriental Society, and in 1982 as president.

During his years of study Gedney began collecting Thai literature, ultimately building a 14,000 volume collection, which he donated in 1975 to the University of Michigan. Gedney specialized throughout his career on documenting the Tai–Kadai languages. He sought in particular many in the less spoken languages of this family in Southeast Asia and southern China in order to capture the characteristics of these languages. He was known for the accuracy of his notes on the tonal and phonological characteristics of these languages, and developed important word lists and representations for the study and comparisons of their tone.

In all Gedney worked on over 22 languages, including Saek, Lue, and Yay, often creating the first dictionaries of those languages. His findings have been published in an eight-volume series with the Center for South and South East Asian Studies at the University of Michigan, edited by Thomas John Hudak, one of Gedney's students.

By focusing on data and his extensive knowledge of the Tai–Kadai languages, Gedney established himself as a leader in the comparative-historical study of Tai languages and dialects. But his influence went far beyond linguistics. Researchers from other disciplines including history, political science, art history and anthropology sought his advice.

William J. Gedney died on 14 November 1999 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Published works

  • Gedney, William J. On the Thai Evidence for Austro-Thai. [S.l: s.n, 1976.
  • Gedney, William J., and Robert J. Bickner. Selected Papers on Comparative Tai Studies. Michigan papers on South and Southeast Asia, no. 29. Ann Arbor, Mich., USA: Center for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Michigan, 1989. ISBN 0-89148-037-4
  • Gedney, William J., Carol J. Compton, and John F. Hartmann. Papers on Tai Languages, Linguistics, and Literatures: In Honor of William J. Gedney on His 77th Birthday. Monograph series on Southeast Asia. [De Kalb]: Northern Illinois University, Center for Southeast Asian Studies, 1992. ISBN 1-877979-16-3
  • Gedney, William J., and Thomas J. Hudak. (1995). William J. Gedney's central Tai dialects: glossaries, texts, and translations. Michigan papers on South and Southeast Asia, no. 43. Ann Arbor, Mich: Center for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Michigan ISBN 0-89148-075-7
  • Gedney, William J., and Thomas J. Hudak. William J. Gedney's the Yay Language: Glossary, Texts, and Translations. Michigan papers on South and Southeast Asia, no. 38. Ann Arbor, Mich: Center for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Michigan, 1991. ISBN 0-89148-066-8
  • Gedney, William J., and Thomas J. Hudak. William J. Gedney's Southwestern Tai Dialects: Glossaries, Texts and Translations. Michigan papers on South and Southeast Asia, no. 42. [Ann Arbor, Mich.]: Center for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Michigan, 1994. ISBN 0-89148-074-9


Gedney advised many dissertations in Tai linguistics, and made his extensive field notes available to his students. He continued to serve on dissertation committees after his retirement in 1980. A selection of Gedney's notable students and their dissertations is as follows:

  • 1966. Gething, Thomas. Dissertation: Some aspects of semantic structure in Standard Thai.
  • 1970. Pongsri Lekawatana. 1970. Dissertation: Verb Phrases in Thai: a Study in Deep-case Relationships.
  • 1970. Scovel, Thomas. Dissertation: A grammar of time in Thai.
  • 1971. Compton, Carol J. Dissertation: A Study of the Nasalization of Vowels Following /h/ in Some Southwestern Tai Languages and Dialects.
  • 1973. Khanittanan, Wilaiwan. Dissertation: The influence of Siamese on five Lao dialects.
  • 1973. Oshika, Beatrice. Dissertation: The relationship of Kam-Sui-Mak to Tai.
  • 1973. Sarawit, Mary. Dissertation: The Proto-Tai vowel system.
  • 1974. Beebe, Leslie. Dissertation: Socially conditioned variation in Bangkok Thai
  • 1976. Hartmann, John. Dissertation: The linguistic and memory structure of Tai-Lue oral narrative.
  • 1977. Chamberlain, James R. Dissertation: An introduction to Proto-Tai zoology.
  • 1978. Grima, John. Dissertation: Categories of zero nominal reference and clausal structure in Thai.
  • 1981. Bickner, Robert. Dissertation: A linguistic study of a Thai literary classic.
  • 1981. Hudak, Thomas. Dissertation: The indigenization of Pali meter in Thai poetry.
  • 1981. Peyasantiwong, Patcharin. Dissertation: A Study of Final Particles in Conversational Thai.
  • 1984. Strecker, David. Dissertation: Proto-Tai personal pronouns.


    • Compton, Carol J. and John F. Hartmann (eds.). 1992. Papers on Tai languages, linguistics, and literatures: in honor of William J. Gedney on his 77th birthday. Northern Illinois University, Center for Southeast Asian Studies.
    • Hudak, Thomas J. 2000. Obituaries: William J. gedney (1915-1999). The Journal of Asian Studies, 59(1), 223.
    • Hudak, Thomas J. 2009. William J. Gedney. In Stammerjohann, Harro, ed. Lexicon grammaticorum: A bio-bibliographical companion to the history of linguistics. Walter de Gruyter.
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