In Memoriam: Barbara F. Grimes (1930-2014)

Barbara Grimes

The Ethnologue staff and all the SIL family were saddened to hear of the passing on March 1, 2014 of Barbara F. Grimes, editor emerita of the Ethnologue.  Though begun by Richard Pittman, the Ethnologue research agenda and the resulting publication were shaped and developed by Barbara over her tenure from 1953 until 2001, first as a research assistant, then as assistant editor in 1967, and finally as editor beginning in 1971. Under her leadership Ethnologue grew from being an incomplete listing of languages to becoming a comprehensive reference work providing a basic description of the situation of every known living language. With the assistance of her husband, Joseph E. Grimes, she also oversaw the transition of the Ethnologue from a paper-based publication to a computer database from which a website and various publications could be produced.

Barbara combined in one person the skills needed to manage and direct such an endeavor. Her concern for accuracy and eye for detail combined remarkably well with an amazing memory and with a growing understanding of language in society.  She was knowledgeable in the areas of language identification, bilingualism, language proficiency, language classification, linguistic typology, and a range of other topics which inevitably came into focus as the Ethnologue itself expanded to encompass data related to those topics and many more.

My favorite recollection of Barbara was observing her when meeting people at conferences or other gatherings. She would often ask where they were from.  When they told her the name of their home country, she would immediately tell them how many languages were spoken there and then ask which of those they spoke. When they told her the name of their language she could tell them relevant facts about their language entirely from memory and her in-depth familiarity with the Ethnologue content. Often she would engage them in a discussion about how similar or different the language was from other related varieties and she never failed to take note of updated and improved information in order to get it into the Ethnologue. I have often wanted to be like Barbara in that regard and occasionally when I do remember some little tidbit about a language I say to myself with a bit of pride, "I'm turning into Barbara Grimes!"

Further evidence of her virtuosity as editor is that she has been replaced not by a single person but by a staff of three. Each of the current editors has taken on part of the job that Barbara carried out almost singlehandedly. Admittedly, the project has grown and the technologies we use, though helpful, require a broad range of expertise, but I often marvel at the capacity and tenacity of one woman to keep it all organized and moving in the right direction for four decades. 

Current and past Ethnologue editorsA memorial  service was held in Tahlequah, Oklahoma on March 13th and a group of us including all of the living past and present Ethnologue editors were able to attend (pictured from left to right: Lewis, Simons, Gordon, Fennig around the photo of Barbara). We were privileged to be able to pay tribute to this remarkable woman and to her academic and spiritual legacy. Our prayers and condolences are with her family and with the many close friends who will miss her deeply.