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James Bosson
In Memoriam

James Bosson

Professor of East Asian Languages and Cultures, Emeritus

UC Berkeley
James Evert Bosson, professor emeritus in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures (formerly Oriental Languages) at the University of California, Berkeley, died peacefully at his home in Berkeley on November 30, 2016, after a long illness. He was 83.

Bosson joined the Berkeley faculty as assistant professor in 1963 to teach Mongolian, Manchu, and Tibetan languages and linguistics. Many of today’s specialists in these languages trained directly under Bosson. When he was first asked to teach Manchu, there were few available teaching materials, so he compiled his own. He was instrumental in maintaining UC Berkeley’s leading role in Manchu studies and was also credited with promoting Mongolian studies in Sweden, where he lived as a young man. His 1964 textbook Modern Mongolian: A Primer and Reader (Indiana University Press) remains the standard for English-speaking learners of Mongolian to this day. Two years later, he published Conversational Mongolian: Drill Material. In 2014, the government of Mongolia awarded Bosson the Order of the Polar Star for his contributions to Mongolian studies in the United States.

Bosson researched and translated texts in Mongolian, Tibetan, and Manchu, and became one of the founding editors of Saksaha, A Journal of Manchu Studies in 1993. He published several groundbreaking works, including Buriat Reader (Indiana University, 1962) and A Treasury of Aphoristic Jewels: The Subhasitaratnanidhi of Sa Skya Pandita in Tibetan and Mongolian (Indiana University Press,1969). In later years he contributed to exhibition and conference volumes, including “Highlights of the Manchu-Mongolian Collection” in The Treasures of the Yenching: Seventy-Fifth Anniversary of the Harvard-Yenching Library: Exhibition Catalog (Harvard College Library, 2003); and Patricia Berger, ed., Mongolia: The Legacy of Chinggis Khan (in association with the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, 1995).

He published scholarly works in general Central Asian and Chinese studies, but is especially noted as one of the few American scholars of the second half of the twentieth century whose work focused on Mongolia. He built upon the legacy of Ferdinand Lessing, who came to Berkeley in 1935, and who published, in 1960, the still-standard Mongolian-English Dictionary (now in its third reprinting by Routledge Press). Bosson edited the scholarly Mongolia Society Bulletin from 1965 to 1967.

Born in Red Wing, Minnesota, on July 17, 1933, Bosson discovered inner Asia as a high school student in Stockholm, after his Swedish parents returned to their native land prior to World War II. He became familiar with the textbook of Mongolian published by the Swedish missionary Folke Boberg (1896-1987), and took an interest in studying the language. After the family returned to the U.S. in the late 1940s, Bosson earned his B.A. degree (1954) at Brigham Young University under the polymath linguist-historian Hugh Nibley. He was later accepted to the graduate program in Far Eastern languages and literature at the University of Washington, where he studied with Nicholas Poppe, the leading specialist in Mongolian and the wider Altaic language family in the United States during the mid-twentieth century. From 1961 to 1963 he added to his knowledge of Altaic languages during a two-year Fulbright-supported residence in Turkey, where he worked on his dissertation and various other publications as he studied yet another Altaic language in depth. Bosson pursued study of Mongolia, Manchu, and Tibet at a particularly difficult time: the Cold War prevented physical access during these years.

Bosson completed his Ph.D. in 1965 after having already been hired by UC Berkeley to teach Central Asian languages. In 1965, he also became editor of the Newsletter of the Mongolia Society, which served to disseminate current events, news, and issues of academic interest. He remained active at Berkeley until the late 1990s, with visiting teaching stints at Harvard University, although he had retired as professor emeritus in 1994.

He is survived by his wife, Ann-Britt, and their daughter Jenny Bosson, as well as by two children from his first marriage, Monica and Nicholas Bosson.

Martin Backstrom
Caverlee Cary
Dana Buntrock