For two decades, William Cowan has been the major force in the development of Algonquian Studies in Canada. The annual Algonguian Papers, which he has published for 20 years, constitute a case study in the creation of a new interdisciplinary field and a landmark in scholarly enterprise.
As a student of the Algonquian languages, Professor Cowan has ranged far and wide across the field: from the analysis of spoken languages (primarily the Montagnais language of Québec) and the interpretation of written records (which in Montagnais reach back to the 17th century) all the way to the reconstruction of Proto-Algonquian, the ancestral language postulated on the basis of the spoken languages of today - local languages like Cree and Ojibwe; the Blackfoot and Cheyenne languages of the western plains; the Delaware language of the Atlantic coast; and many more.
Dr Cowans first degree was in English (at Berkeley). He received a Certificate in Arabic from the Army Language School in Monterey, and he also spent a year at the most ancient university in Spain, at Salamanca. When he went to Cornell to take his PhD in Linguistics, Chomsky's revolution had just begun and linguistic theory was in full ferment - but always tempered, at Cornell, by a firm emphasis on languages like Arabic and those of the Algonquian family.
Professor Cowan's career as an academic linguist began in Beirut (Lebanon) and continued at Brown University (Providence, Rhode Island). In 1971 he left Brown for Carleton University in Ottawa, where he founded the Dept. of Linguistics and for many years served as its Head; he also became fluent in French. Later, a series of visiting appointments took him to Georgetown, back to the American University in Beirut, the University of Toronto, the Université de Montréal, and to London.
Besides a long list of articles on Maltese and Arabic, on Montagnais and Comparative Algonquian, he has published a standard textbook in Comparative and Historical Linguistics. Professor Cowan has also had an important role in the establishment of the field of linguistics in Canada, a field in which Canadian researchers now have become prominent, and he concluded his career in this area with a flourish: for almost ten years, he was elected and re-elected Editor of the Canadian Journal of Linguistics / Revue canadienne de linguistigue, a demanding task which he performed with distinction and with his customary flair.
All these accomplishments pale, however, beside Cowan's monumental legacy to the new field of Algonquian Studies, which under his guidance quickly developed a tradition of bringing together established scholars and students at all levels from a wide variety of disciplines: from art and archaeology to ecology and ethnology, from music and poetics to philology and linguistics.
The inclusive spirit of the Algonquian Conference, which owes so much to Cowan's gentle leadership, is a worthwhile model in any context. It seems especially appropriate at the University of Manitoba, where the study of the 'local' languages and of the literary and historical texts transmitted in Cree and Ojibwe has long been a special focus for teaching, research, and publication.
For 20 years, Cowan has been the driving force behind the Algonquian Conference and the Alqonguian Papers, of which volume 25 (the last to be edited by him) has just come off the press. For 20 years, without fail, the new volume was in hand, edited and published at Carleton, where Cowan watched over the emerging field of Algonquian Studies.
An eminent figure in Canadian linguistics and a distinguished Arabist, Professor Cowan is known, above all, as an Algonquianist.