Linguist's legacy reached 72 countries

Friends and family have been devastated by the sudden and untimely death of linguist Dr Cathy Bow, who coached missionaries for language work and then worked closely with Aboriginal language owners in the Northern Territory.

Cathy trained a whole generation of men and women for language learning at St Andrew’s Hall, the training college for the Church Missionary Society (CMS) in Melbourne, according to its director, David Williams, appearing via videolink at Cathy’s funeral service on 8 November in Darwin.

“Cathy had an amazing ministry here at St Andrew’s Hall and in the wider community,” he said.

“So many people attended the courses that she ran and came in thinking ‘I’ll never be able to learn language’, but left with the skills and the confidence that they needed to successfully navigate the complexities of learning languages in so many different countries around the world.

“She’s really trained a whole generation of gospel workers, not just for CMS, but for the wider missions community.”

“She’s really trained a whole generation of gospel workers, not just for CMS, but for the wider missions community.” – David Williams

Rebecca Elliott, who worked with Cathy every year for 18 years on the Missions Iinterlink Language Learning (MILL) course, said her legacy “lives on in 72 different countries that she trained workers to go to. Her legacy lives on as well in the MILL course, which is going to go on with a new generation of trainers. And in my life, any work I do is based on the foundation of what I learnt with Cathy and from Cathy. I only spent a couple of weeks each year with Cathy, but her loss has left me bereft.”

Another St Andrew’s Hall friend and colleague, Isabel Dale, talked about Cathy’s work in Darwin over the past decade, where she managed language projects, particularly for Indigenous Australian languages.

“She worked carefully and listened respectfully to Indigenous speakers and custodians, thinking to enable them to conserve and pass on the language If they wanted to,” Isabel said.

“She did ground-breaking work in developing connections that linked country, community, and language custodianship, which I think reflected her commitment to Christ, the Word made incarnate dwelling among us and Christ’s community of which she loved and served Jesus and people.”

“She did ground-breaking work in developing connections that linked country, community, and language custodianship, which I think reflected her commitment to Christ.” – Isabel Dale

Her boss at Charles Darwin University (CDU), Professor Michael Christie, said Cathy had worked with academics, educators, linguists, lawyers, archivists and computer programmers, “all the while developing strong, and happy relationships with Aboriginal language owners all throughout the Territory and further afield.

“In particular, she worked very closely with the Yolŋu lecturers and researchers at CDU and beyond on a variety of projects to do with endangered Yolŋu languages, translation work, and software development.

“We also remember her work with the Bininj ladies from west Arnhem as they built and delivered together a Bininj-kunwok language program and worked with the language centre to develop resources. They have sent a separate message of condolence.

“She was also working on a large research project with Aboriginal language owners to develop their own stories of their languages, where they came from and the work they do.”

Janette Burranali, left and Gill Namundja congratulate Cathy at her PhD graduation in May.

As well as gaining a PhD in digital technologies and Aboriginal languages in May this year, Cathy’s career highlights included:

  • Developing Living Archive of Aboriginal Languages and Digital Language Shell.
  • Coaching learners of various languages preparing for cross-cultural work.
  • Describing the sound system of an African language.
  • Investigating language development in children with impaired hearing.
  • Researching tools for documenting endangered language.
  • Researching the language and communication needs of international medical graduates.
  • Teaching English as an Additional Language to international students

Friend and former student Ruth Brigden said Cathy’s death from a massive stroke in her prime of life had blindsided her friends because it was so unexpected.

They were feeling “the sting of the sharp and sudden loss of a person we loved who was dependable, steadfast and kind … We feel grief because we talked among ourselves with Cathy about our future together. We imagined growing old with her. Our heads and hearts are only just beginning to grasp the enormity of the event of her death.

“As people who follow Jesus, as Cathy did, we are confident that she is now safe with him.” – Ruth Brigden

“Nevertheless, in the midst of this strange and dark time we have also experienced joy. That might sound surprising. Who can feel joy when their smart, selfless, fun and generous friend dies? Well, we have found joy in realising that the sense of solidarity and community we have felt in the last two and a half weeks, has been in large part because Cathy created the very community from which we now draw strength. Cathy was the lynchpin of our Darwin friendship network and we are now feeling the comfort of that network in very real ways as we grieve her loss together. She left us a wonderful gift.

“The second reason we are able to experience joy in the midst of grief is because, as people who follow Jesus, as Cathy did, we are confident that she is now safe with him. I don’t know if you are someone who Cathy spoke about her faith with, but she made a decision many years ago to trust in Jesus and his promises. She belonged to him. And one of Jesus’ promises is that people who belong to him will be kept safe into eternity. We experience joy because we know that even now Jesus has kept his promise to Cathy, and that she is safe with him.”

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