Folklorist and linguist John Widdowson was born in Sheffield, England, and educated at Oxford University, the University of Leeds, and Memorial University, where he earned his PhD.
Dr. Widdowson came to Memorial in the 1960s to teach English language and complete his doctoral studies.
He later joined the folklore department, serving as head in 1974-75. In 1974 he was elected to the first executive of the Canadian Oral History Association.
Along with Drs. George Story and William Kirwin, Dr. Widdowson was co-editor of the Dictionary of Newfoundland English, and, with Gerald Thomas, edited Studies in Newfoundland Folklore: Community and Process.
Dr. Widdowson was founding director of the Centre for English Cultural Tradition and Language at the University of Sheffield, and in 1985 was named honorary research associate in folklore and language at Memorial University.
He is also founding editor of the journal Lore and Language, and co-director of the Institute for Folklore Studies in Britain and Canada.
His publications include If You Don't be Good...: Verbal Social Control in Newfoundland(1977), Studies in Linguistic Geography: the Dialects of England in Britain and Ireland (1985) and Word Maps: A Dialect Atlas of England (1987).
Dr. Widdowson will receive an honorary doctor of letters degree.
Oration honouring John David Allison Widdowson
Kristina Szutor, university orator
When the great Hungarian composer and ethnomusicologist Bela Bartok first encountered the true folk music of his native land, he was acutely aware of the gulf that separated it from popular pseudo-folk-art. What he discovered was a rich and untapped source of musical material untainted by popular culture, while that which passed for indigenous folk music was what he called the “usual gypsy slop.” This included formulaic renditions of the tzigane or the csardas that were widely accepted as true representations of Hungarian culture in works by composers from Haydn to Liszt. While Bartok was quick to recognize the enormous value in the original folk material he'd found, it seems he was in a decided minority: the peasants themselves were bewildered by this outsider's interest in their old songs, and musicologically it was a field where there was a notable paucity of dedicated research. Professed intellectuals, he found tended to be at once “not sufficiently naive but not yet sufficiently educated” to appreciate the artistic value of such primitive material.
It is fortunate for us that the same cannot be said of the distinguished scholar who stands before you. If it is indeed the quality of naivety that allows one to recognize and value the unique customs and language of a people then I may say that the candidate before you is so endowed. And if it is the combination of naivety and dedicated scholarship that results in a life given to the study and documentation of these interests then we in Newfoundland can be thankful that these qualities are well met in the person of linguist and folklorist, John David Alison Widdowson, for without his works we would be poorer indeed.
Dr. Widdowson has contributed immeasurably to Newfoundland culture through his collaboration on such seminal works as The Dictionary of Newfoundland English, Christmas Mumming in Newfoundland and Studies in Newfoundland Folklore, as well as the magisterial Folktales of Newfoundland. Each of these recognizes and celebrates the richness of Newfoundland's culture and heritage through an examination of its traditions, customs and language: several of them can be seen as scholarly monuments in their discipline. As such they could easily stand as the crowning achievements of a scholarly life, and yet they constitute only a portion of Dr. Widdowson's interests and output which extends to include a dozen more books and over 60 articles.
Educated at Oxford and Leeds in English Language and Literature before obtaining a PhD from Memorial in the Department of Folklore, Dr. Widdowson continued to “straddle the pond,” as it were, throughout the course of his professional life, fostering invaluable ties between his native England and his adopted Newfoundland as well as between the various disciplines in his sphere of interest. A valued and distinguished member of the faculty in English language, folklore and culture at the University of Sheffield for over 30 years, he founded a unique research centre there — now known as the National Centre for English Cultural Tradition — and was appointed to a chair in English in 1984 in recognition of his scholarly achievements. All the while he returned regularly to Memorial, continuing a long and fruitful association that had begun in 1962 when he was appointed to a lectureship in the Department of English. He returned as visiting professor and head of Folklore, as research fellow in language and folklore and most recently as honorary research associate. In all of these capacities he has conducted and stimulated vital research in collaboration with colleagues in English as well as Folklore.
In recognition of his substantial contributions to the cultural life of Newfoundland and of a career that stands as a testament to interdisciplinary and international cooperation, I now take great pleasure in presenting, for the degree of doctor of letters (honoris causa), John David Alison .