Professor Kay Williamson


Kay Williamson, (born Ruth Margaret Williamson), my friend and colleague of quarter-century, died in Brazil on the 3rd of January, 2005, as she was approaching her 70th birthday. She was recovering from a major operation in November and decided to go to Brazil to attend the wedding of a niece. She had just finished the wedding and was about to go home when she fell down and died instantly. Her family were in Brazil where a post-mortem and cremation took place on the 7th of January. A small Quaker-style meeting of the family members present on the Friday afternoon was held at the Crematorium. The autopsy gave 5 causes of death, including a heart attack, which was probably the precipitating factor: the others obviously made her extremely vulnerable. The ashes have been brought back to England and I carried them Nigeria on Friday 28th January. The University of Port Harcourt arranged a series of memorial events March 23-26th, which some of Kays English relations were able to attend. The programme was as follows;


Memorial Events for Professor Kay (Ruth) Williamson


University of Port Harcourt, Rivers State, Nigeria


23-26th March 2005


23rd-26th March Exhibition of life and works of Kay Williamson

24th March Official visit of the Exhibition

Memorial Service 7.00 p.m.

25th March Good Friday. Quaker events

26th March Special Convocation 10.00 a.m.

Drive to Kaiama, handing over of ashes, traditional burial service


Images from these events are in the gallery below.


A memorial service in Britain was held in Bodenham Village Church, Bodenham, near Hereford, on Saturday 16th April at 2.30 p.m. at which representatives of the University of Port Harcourt were present. See gallery for pictures. A Quaker memorial meeting was held at Hartington Grove, Cambridge Friends Meeting House on Sunday 24th April. See gallery for a picture from this meeting.


Kay Williamson was born in January 1935 in Hereford, England, where she lived for the first 18 years of her life. Her parents were Alfred Henry ("Harry") Williamson and Harriett Eileen Williamson, and she was the oldest of six siblings (two brothers and three sisters). Her father had shortly before established Wyevale Nurseries, plant-growers, which many years later gave rise to the Wyevale Garden Centre which subsequently became what is now the country's largest chain of garden centres. She was educated at a small private school, the Moor Park Preparatory School, until the age of 11, when she went to the local grammar school, the Hereford High School for Girls. Her interest in languages was already evident in her proficiency in French, German and Latin (the only languages that were taught at her school).


She went to Oxford in 1953, where she took a B.A. in English. After Oxford, she moved to Nigeria on a Leverhulme Research Scholarship, where she began research on the Ịjọ language cluster and later became an Assistant Lecturer in Phonetics at the University College of Ibadan. She later studied linguistics at Yale University, where she received her Ph.D. in 1964. After further research on Ịjọ with a fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies, she then taught linguistics at the University of Ibadan, where she became a Professor in 1972. In 1977, she moved to the University of Port Harcourt, where she taught Linguistics and Nigerian Languages until she retired in 2000. She held the UNESCO Chair in Cultural Heritage at the University of Port Harcourt, Nigeria until her death. The gallery below includes some images from her academic career.


With Nigerian colleagues she initiated the Rivers Readers Project, which encouraged students to study their own languages, to develop orthographies and reading materials. Through the Rivers Readers Project, primary school books have been published in all the languages of Rivers State. She is a founding member and has been a council member of the West African Linguistics Society and the Linguistic Association of Nigeria. Kay Williamson is a specialist in Nigerian languages and comparative Niger-Congo. She published on Ịjọ, Igbo, various other languages of the Niger Delta, and on the classification of Benue-Congo and Niger-Congo. She has left behind very substantial manuscripts on the Ijọ and Igbo languages; it is hoped that these can be published in due course.


Kay was an eminent linguist and a very special person. Her two greatest contributions are in comparative West African linguistics and in local language development.  This was very influential both for the products developed, and for the awareness and legitimacy it gave to many local languages. She inspired and taught whole generations of students to become linguists like herself: competent, kind and applying her skills to help new generations to a better image of themselves, their family, people and nation. One impressive testimony to this were the two Festschrifts prepared for her by her Nigerian colleagues, the latest one in 2003. The gallery below shows images of some of her long-term friends, colleagues and collaborators.


Kay Williamson was diagnosed with a leaking heart valve in 1991 and underwent a major operation for this condition in 1994. She was taking Warfarin to prevent blood-clotting and in December 2003 was rushed to England when a surge of bleeding in her leg threatened her health. She subsequently spent some four months in the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. After that she stayed in England, which gave her a chance to write up part of her lifelong study of the Ijọ languages. In November, she underwent another major operation and was recovering in Cambridge during December.


Kay was brought up a Methodist, but became a Quaker in the early 1990s, and was subsequently very active, both among Quakers in Nigeria and in attending Quaker meetings in Cambridge. She took peace activism very seriously and often went down to London to protest at international arms fairs. During 2004, she went to a protest rally at an airbase nearby Cambridge, despite her health situation.


Kays intellectual legacy is quite substantial in unpublished works. Many of these need further work to appear in book form and I will be publishing interim versions on my website. A further circular will go out to linguists who may have an interest in this material.


Roger Blench


An obituary of Kay Williamson was published in the British Guardian newspaper and a special issue of the Journal of West African Languages is planned to commemorate her work.



Kay Williamson Educational Foundation


Under Kay Williamsons will, she left funds for the promotion of research and publishing in Nigerian languages. It has been decided to conduct this under a charitable trust, provisionally named the Kay Williamson Educational Foundation the board of which will include both her executors and scholars who worked with her. This will take some time to establish but further notice will be given when this is up and running.



Images of the life and Career of Kay Williamson


Kay just after arrival in Ibadan in 1956 (Courtesy Mary Harris)






Kay at the West African Language Congress, Cotonou 1980.



University ID




Kay with colleagues






Kay as Fellow at the Nigerian Academy of Letters





Images of the Memorial events in Nigeria



Members of Kays family at the Memorial Exhibition



Memorial Bed inside Kays House at Kaiama




Women dancing outside Kays house in Kaiama




Images of the Memorial service in England



Leaving Bodenham church



Representatives of the University of Port Harcourt at the Service



London Ijọ Community dancing at the memorial service after the reception



Quaker memorial meeting, Hartington Grove, Cambridge Friends Meeting House on Sunday 24th April




Friends, colleagues and collaborators


Richard Freeman, Kays long-term collaborator



The Egberipou family, on whose land Kay built her house in Kaiama;



Mr. A.O. Timitimi, resident of Kaiama, who worked with Kay on all aspects of Ijọ language;



Robin Horton, Kays colleague and friend since the 1950s;



Judy Nwanodi, Kays friend from her earliest days in Nigeria;



Ozo-Mekuri Ndimele, a colleague and collaborator of Kay, who has been instrumental in organising events following her death;



Kays house on campus



A festschrift for Kay


Painting of Kay and condolence book, outside her former office;



Part of Kays office in Port Harcourt;



Some messages of condolence


A day out on the water


An early impression of Ibadan by Kay



Publications (excerpt)


Williamson, Kay.  1965 (2nd ed. 1969).  A grammar of the Kolokuma dialect of Ịjọ.  (West African Language Monographs, 2.) London: C.U.P.

Williamson, Kay, and Kiyoshi Shimizu (edd.).  1968.  Benue-Congo comparative wordlist: Volume I.  Ibadan: West African Linguistic Society.

Williamson, Kay (ed.)  1972.  Igbo-English dictionary.  Benin: Ethiope Publishing Corporation.

Williamson, Kay (ed.).  1973.  Benue-Congo comparative wordlist: Volume II.  Ibadan: West African Linguistic Society.

Williamson, Kay (ed.)  1983.  Orthographies of Nigerian languages: Manual II.  Lagos: National Language Centre, Federal Ministry of Education.

Williamson, Kay, and A. O. Timitimi (edd.).  1983.  Short Ịzọn-English dictionary.  (Delta Series No. 3.)  Port Harcourt: University of Port Harcourt Press.

Williamson, Kay.  1984.  Practical orthography in Nigeria. Ibadan: Heinemann Educational Books Ltd.

Williamson, Kay.  1971.  The Benue-Congo languages and Ịjọ.  In: Current Trends in Linguistics, Vol. 7, series ed. by T. A. Sebeok, 245-306.

Williamson, Kay.  1979.  Small languages in primary education: the Rivers Readers Project as a case history.  African Languages/Langues Africaines 5:2.95-l05.

Williamson, Kay.  1989.  Niger-Congo Overview. In: The Niger-Congo languages, ed.  by John Bendor-Samuel, 3-45.  University Press of America.

Williamson, Kay.  1989.  Benue-Congo Overview.  In: The Niger-Congo languages, ed.  by John Bendor-Samuel, 246-274.  University Press of America.

Williamson, Kay, and Roger Blench.  2000.  Niger-Congo.  In: African languages: an introduction, ed. B. Heine and D. Nurse, Chapter 2, 11-42.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.



Articles and chapters


1. Williamson, Kay.  1959.  The units of an African tone language.  Phonetica 3.145-166.

2. Williamson, Kay.  1962.  (Republished by Bobbs-Merrill Reprints 1971.).  Changes in the marriage system of the Okrika Ịjọ.  Africa 32.53-60.

3. Williamson, Kay.  1963.  The syntax of verbs of motion in Ịjọ.  J. African Languages 2.150-154.

4. Williamson, Kay.  1963.  History through linguistics. Ibadan 17.10-11.

5. Williamson, Kay.  1965.  Results from the linguistic questionnaire.  Ibadan 21.25-28.

6. Williamson, Kay.  1966.  The status of /e/ in Onitsha Igbo.  Journal of West African Languages 3:2. 67-69.

7. Williamson, Kay.  1966.  Ịjọ dialects in the Polyglotta Africana.  Sierra Leone Language Review 5.  122-133.

8. Freemann, R. A., and Kay Williamson.  1967.  Ịjọ proverbs.  Research Notes (Ibadan) 1:1-11.

9. Williamson, Kay.  1967.  Songhai wordlist.  (Gao dialect).  Research Notes (Ibadan) 1:3.1-31.

10. Williamson, Kay.  1968.  Deep and surface structure in tone languages.  Journal of West African Languages 5:2. 77-81.

11. Williamson, Kay.  1968.  Introduction to R.E. Bradbury: Comparative Edo wordlists.  Research Notes 1:4.1-4.

12. Williamson, Kay.  1968.  Languages of the Niger Delta.  Nigeria Magazine 97.124-130.

13. Williamson, Kay.  1969.  'Igbo' and 'Ịjọ', chapters 7 and 8 in: Twelve Nigerian Languages, ed. by E. Dunstan.  Longmans.

14.  Williamson, Kay, and A. O. Timitimi.  1970.  A note on number symbolism in Ịjọ.  African Notes (Ibadan) 5:3. 9-16.

15. Williamson, Kay.  1970.  Some food plant names in the Niger Delta.  International Journal of American Linguistics 36.156-167.

16. Williamson, Kay.  1970.  The definition of a tone language.  Actes du Xe Congrs International des Linguistes 4.861-864.

17. Williamson, Kay.  1970.  The generative treatment of downstep.  In: Tone in Generative Phonology, Research Notes 3, nos. 2-3, 23-33.

18. Williamson, Kay.  1970.  Some alternative proposals for the Igbo completive phrase.  In: Tone in Generative Phonology, Research Notes 3, nos. 2-3, 83-90.

19. Williamson, Kay.  1971.  The Benue-Congo languages and Ịjọ.  In: Current Trends in Linguistics, Vol. 7, series ed. by T. A. Sebeok, 245-306.

20. Williamson, Kay.  1971.  Animal names in Ịjọ.  Afr. Notes 6, no. 2, 53-61.

21. Williamson, Kay.  1972.  Assimilation in Ọgbia.  Research Notes 5, nos. 2-3.  1-5.

22. Williamson, Kay.  1972.  Summary of tonal behaviour.  Research Notes 5, nos. 2-3.93-l0l.

23. Williamson, Kay.  1972.  The Nigerian Rivers Readers Project.  Linguistic Reporter 14, nos. 6, 1-2.

24. Williamson, Kay.  1973.  More on nasals and nasalization in Kwa.  Studies in African Linguistics 4.115-138.

25. Williamson, Kay.  1973.  The Lower Niger languages.  dm 1:1.32-35.

26. Williamson, Kay.  1973.  Some reduced vowel harmony systems.  Research Notes 6:1-3. 145-169.

27. Williamson, Kay.  1975.  Metre in Ịzọn funeral dirges.  dm 2:2.21-33.

28. Maddieson, Ian, and Kay Williamson.  1975.  Jarawan Bantu.  African Languages 1.125-163.

29. Williamson, Kay.  1975.  Publishing in local languages.  Report of the Commonwealth African Book Development Seminar, 29-36.  London: Commonwealth Secretariat.

30. Williamson, Kay.  1976.  The Rivers Readers Project in Nigeria.  In: Mother tongue education: the West African experience, ed.  A.  Bamgbos`e, 135-153.  London: Hodder and Stoughton, Paris: UNESCO Press.

31. Ladefoged, Peter, Kay Williamson, Ben Elugbe and Sister Ann Angela Uwalaka.  1976.  The stops of Owerri Igbo.  Studies in African Linguistics, Supplement 6, 147-163.

32. Elugbe, Ben, and Kay Williamson.  1977.  Reconstructing nasals in Proto-Benue-Kwa.  In: Linguistic studies offered to Joseph Greenberg, ed. A.  Juilland, 339-363.  Saratoga, California: Anma Libri.

33. Williamson, Kay.  1977.  Multivalued features for consonants.  Language 53.843-871.

34. Williamson, Kay.  1978.  From tone to pitch-accent: the case of Ịjọ.  Kiabr 1:2.116-125.

35. Williamson, Kay.  1979.  Consonant distribution in Ịjọ.  In: Linguistic and literary studies presented to Archibald Hill, ed.  E.C. Polome and W. Winter, 3.341-353.  Lisse, Netherlands: Peter de Ridder Press.

36. Williamson, Kay.  1979.  Medial consonants in Proto-Ịjọ.  Journal of African Languages and Linguistics 1.73-94.

37. Williamson, Kay.  1979.  Small languages in primary education: the Rivers Readers Project as a case history.  African Languages/Langues Africaines 5:2.95-l05.

38. Williamson, Kay.  1979.  Sentence tone in some Southern Nigerian languages.  Proceedings of the Ninth International Congress of Phonetic Sciences, 2.424-430.  Copenhagen: Institute of Phonetics, University of Copenhagen.

39. Williamson, Kay.  l979.  The big guest.  (Introduction to three folktales.)  Kiabr 2:2.160-163.

40. Williamson, Kay.  1980.  Recent progress of the Rivers Readers Project in Nigeria.  Educafrica (Bulletin of the Unesco Regional Office for Education in Africa) 6.76-82.

41. Orupabo, G. J., and Kay Williamson.  1980.  Okrika.  In West African language data sheets, Volume II, edited by M.E. Kropp Dakubu.  Leiden: West African Linguistic Society and African Studies Centre.

42. Elugbe, Ben, and Kay Williamson.  1984.  The loss of the fortis/lenis contrast in Abuan resonants.  In: Topics in linguistic phonetics in honour of E.T. Uldall, ed. by Jody Higgs and Robin Thelwall.  Occasional Papers in Linguistics and Language Learning, No. 9.  Ulster, Linguistics Department.  New University of Ulster.

43. Faraclas, N., and Kay Williamson.  1984.  Assimilation, dissimilation and fusion, vowel quality in Lower Cross.  Journal of African Languages and Linguistics 6.1-18.

44. Williamson, Kay.  1984.  A note on the word bke.  Ụwa ndị Igbo 1.102.

45. Williamson, Kay.  1985.  How to become a Kwa language.  In Linguistics and Philosophy: Essays in honor of Rulon Wells, ed.  by Adam Makkai and Alan K Melby, 428-443.  (Current issues in Linguistic theory, No. 42).  Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

46. Williamson, Kay.  1986.  The Igbo associative and specific constructions.  In: The phonological representation of suprasegmentals, ed.  by K. Bogers, H. Van der Hulst, and M. Mous, 195-206.  Dordrecht: Foris.

47. Williamson, Kay.  1986.  Niger-Congo: SVO or SOV? Journal of West African Languages 16:1.5-15.

48. Williamson, Kay.  1987.  Nasality in Ịjọ.  In: Current trends in African linguistics, 4, ed.  by David Odden, 397-415.

49. Williamson, Kay.  1988.  Linguistic evidence for the prehistory of the Niger Delta.  In: The Prehistory of the Niger Delta, ed.  by E.J. Alagoa and others.  Hamburg: Helmut Buske Verlag.

50. Williamson, Kay.  1989.  Niger-Congo Overview. In: The Niger-Congo languages, ed.  by John Bendor-Samuel, 3-45.  University Press of America.

51. Williamson, Kay.  1989.  Benue-Congo Overview.  In: The Niger-Congo languages, ed.  by John Bendor-Samuel, 246-274.  University Press of America.

52. Williamson, Kay.  1989.  Tone and accent in Ịjọ.  In Pitch accent systems, ed.  by Harry v.d. Hulst and Norval Smith, 253-278.  Foris Publications.

53. Efere, E. E., and Kay Williamson.  1989.  Languages [of Rivers State].  Land and people of Nigeria: Rivers State, ed. by E.J. Alagoa and Tekena N. Tamuno.  Port Harcourt: Riverside Publications.

54. Williamson, Kay.  1990.  Development of minority languages: publishing problems and prospects.  In Multilingualism, minority languages and language policy in Nigeria, edited by E.N. Emenanjọ, 118-144.  Agbor: Central Books Ltd in collaboration with the Linguistic Association of Nigeria.  Also published as in 1993 as Chapter 13 of Culture and the book industry in Nigeria, edited by Sule Bello and Abdullahi R. Augi, 203-209.  Lagos: National Commission for Arts and Culture.

55. Lee, J. D., and Kay Williamson.  1990.  A lexicostatistic classification of Ịjọ dialects.  Research in African Languages and Linguistics 1:1.1-10.

56. Williamson, Kay.  1990.  Transcription in Nigerian languages.  In Oral tradition and oral history in Africa and the diaspora: theory and practice, edited by E.J. Alagoa.  Lagos: Centre for Black and African Arts and Civilization for Nigerian Association for Oral History and Tradition, 94-101.

57. Williamson, Kay.  1991.  The tense system of Ịzọn.  In The tense systems of Nigerian languages and English, edited by Okon E. Essien.  Afrikanistische Arbeitspapiere (AAP) 27.145-167.

58. Williamson, Kay.  1992.  R.C. Abraham and D. Alagoma: their contribution to Igbo studies.  African Languages and Cultures, Supplement 1, 131-140.

59. Williamson, Kay, and E. Nolue Emenanjọ.  1992.  Igbo.  International Encyclopedia of Linguistics, edited by William Bright, 2.195-199.

60. Williamson, Kay.  1992.  Some Bantu roots in a wider context.  Komparative Afrikanistik: Sprach-, geschichts- und literaturwissenschaftliche Aufsatze zu Ehren von Hans G. Mukarovsky anlasslich seines 70. Geburtstags, edited by E. Ebermann, E.R. Sommerauer und K.E. Thomanek, 387-403.

61. Williamson, Kay.  1993.  Linguistic evidence for the use of some tree and tuber food plants in southern Nigeria.  The archaeology of Africa: Food, metals and towns, edited by Thurstan Shaw and others, 139-153. 

62. Williamson, Kay.  1993.  Reading, writing and publishing in small languages.  In Teaching Nigerian languages: experiences from the Delta, edited by Rose O. Aziza and E. Nolue Emenanjọ.  Warri: COEWA Publishers.

63. Williamson, Kay.  1993.  The noun prefixes of New Benue-Congo.  Journal of African Languages and Linguistics 14.29-45.

64. Williamson, Kay.  1993.  Introduction [to orthographic practice in Nigeria].  In: Alphabets of Africa, ed. by Rhonda L. Hartell, 218-219.  Dakar: Unesco and SIL.

65. Williamson, Kay.  1993.  Linguistic research on the Ikwerre language.  In: Studies in Ikwerre language and culture: Volume I, edited by Otonti Nduka, 154-162.  Ibadan: Kraft Books Ltd.

66. Blench, Roger M., Kay Williamson, and Bruce Connell.  1994.  The diffusion of maize in Nigeria.  Sprache und Geschichte in Afrika 15.9-46.

67. Williamson, Kay.  1997.  Western African languages in historical perspective.  Encyclopedia of Precolonial Africa, edited by Joseph O. Vogel, 171-177.

68. Williamson, Kay.  1998.  Defaka revisited.  The multi-disciplinary approach to African history, edited by Nkparom C. Ejituwu, Chapter 9, 151-183.  Port Harcourt: University of Port Harcourt Press.

69. Williamson, Kay.  1999.  The development of the University of Port Harcourt 1977-1998, Chapter 2.  Port Harcourt: University of Port Harcourt Press Ltd.

70. Williamson, Kay.  1999.  Distinctive features.  Appendix to: Shirley Yul-Ifode, A course in phonology, 242-264.  Port Harcourt: Riverside Communications.

71. Efere, E. E., and Kay Williamson.  1999.  Languages [of Bayelsa State].  The land and people of Bayelsa State: Central Niger Delta, Chapter 7, 95-107.  Port Harcourt: Onyoma Research Publications.

72. Williamson, Kay.  2000.  Did chickens go west?  The origins and development of African livestock, edited by Roger M. Blench and Kevin C. MacDonald, Chapter 23, 368-448.  London: UCL Press.

73. Williamson, Kay, and Roger Blench.  2000.  Niger-Congo.  African languages: an introduction, ed. B. Heine and D. Nurse, Chapter 2, 11-42.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

74. Williamson, Kay.  2000.  Towards reconstructing Niger-Congo.  Proceedings of the 2nd World Congress of African Linguistics, edited by H. Ekkehard Wolff and Orin Gensler, 49-70.  Kln: Rdiger Kppe Verlag.

75. Ndimele, O.-M., and Kay Williamson.  2002.  Languages [of Rivers State].  The land and people of Rivers State: Eastern Niger Delta, Chapter 9, 149-172.  Port Harcourt: Onyoma Research Publications.

76. Williamson, Kay, and E. E. Efere.  2002.  Crosscurrents and confluences: linguistic clues to cultural development.  Appendix in: Anderson, Martha G., and Philip M. Peek.  Ways of the Rivers.  Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History.

77. Williamson, Kay.  2003.  Charles Bruce Powell, 1943-1998.  Crustaceana 75 (10): 1275-1278.

78. Williamson, Kay.  2003.  Standard Ikwerre.  Chapter 8 in: Studies in Ikwerre language and culture: Volume Two, edited by Otonti Nduka, 134-137.

79. Williamson, Kay.  2004.  The language situation in the Niger Delta.  Chapter 2 in: The development of Ịzọn language, edited by Martha L. Akpana, 9-13.





1992       Rivers State Silver Jubilee Merit Award

1996       Ikwerre Development Association Merit Award

1998       Linguistic Society of America: Honorary Member

 2003 Nigerian Academy of Letters: Fellow