William A. Smalley was born April 4, 1923, in Jerusalem, Palestine. His parents were American missionaries for the Christian and Missionary Alliance, working among Arabs in Jerusalem and Transjordan. In 1934, Smalley and his family moved back to the United States. In reflecting upon his upbringing, Smalley writes, "My parents were thoroughly, deeply devoted both to Christ and to the Alliance, but they drew their boundaries more widely than many." According to Smalley, "My home was intellectually more open than some Alliance homes; my upbringing was somewhat less doctrinaire." (Smalley 1991)
Smalley attended Houghton College, where he developed an interest in anthropology, which he saw as relevant to missionary work. After graduating from Houghton in 1945 with a degree in English literature, he attended the Missionary Training Institute (1945-1946) and received linguistic training in Bible translation at the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) at the University of Oklahoma (1946-1947). In 1946 he also enrolled in Columbia University's graduate program in anthropology with a concentration in linguistics. According to Smalley, he discovered his "intellectual niche" studying at SIL, while "the anthropological training at Columbia gave linguistics a broader cultural context." "I became absorbed in the challenge to understand my faith in Christ in light of all I was learning about human culture." (Smalley 1991)
In 1950, Smalley was sent to Vietnam by the Christian and Missionary Alliance. There, Smalley worked on language analysis problems in the southern region of the country. The following year, he was sent to Luang Prabang, Laos to analyze the Khmu' language and prepare language lessons for other missionaries to learn the language. While in Laos, Smalley also worked with Reverend G. Linwood Barney and Father Yves Bertrais in developing a writing system for the Hmong people. Together, they developed the Hmong Romanized Popular Alphabet (RPA), which is the most widely used Hmong writing system today.
With the outbreak of civil war in Laos, Smalley and his wife were forced to return to the United States in 1954. He completed his dissertation on the Khmu' language and was awarded his doctorate in 1956. An abbreviated version of his dissertation was later published in 1961 as Outline of Khmu' Structure.
Over the next several years, Smalley worked primarily in Southeast Asia as a translation consultant for the American Bible Society (1954-1969) and as a regional translations coordinator (1969-1972) and translation consultant (1972-1977) with the United Bible Societies. Due to his work, he resided in Thailand from 1962 to 1967 and from 1969 to 1972. (He also lived in Thailand as a Fulbright research fellow in 1985 and 1986.) In 1977, he decided to leave the United Bible Societies after 23 years. Unable to find employment, he worked briefly at a discount toy store.
In 1978, Smalley relocated to St. Paul, Minnesota, to accept a position as professor of linguistics at Bethel University (1978-1987). In Minnesota, he unexpectedly found that thousands of Hmong refugees were also settling in the Twin Cities, which guided his research over the next decade. As an Honorary Fellow (1982-1984) with the University of Minnesota Southeast Asia Refugee Studies Program, he took part in a project studying Hmong adaptation to life in the United States, publishing "Adaptive Language Strategies of the Hmong: From Asian Mountains to American Ghettos" (1985) and "Stages of Hmong Cultural Adaptation" (1986). He also studied the different Hmong scripts that had developed since RPA, in particular Pahawh Hmong script, which was created in 1959 in Laos by Shong Lue Yang. Smalley published two books on the script and its creator— Mother of Writing: The Origin and Development of a Hmong Messianic Script (1990) and The Life of Shong Lue Yang: Hmong "Mother of Writing" (1990), both of which he co-authored with Chia Koua Vang and Gnia Yee Yang.
In addition to his work on the Hmong, Smalley researched the different languages and dialects of Thailand, publishing Linguistic Diversity and National Unity: Language Ecology in Thailand (1994); "Thailand's Hierarchy of Multilingualism" (1988); and "Language and Power: Evolution of Thailand's Multilingualism" (1996). As a student at Columbia University, he had also studied Comanche phonology and morphology, coauthoring with Henry Osborn "Formulae for Comanche Stem and Word Formation" (1949).
In 1955, Smalley took over editorship of Practical Anthropology (now known as Missiology), which he edited from 1955 to1968. He also served as associate editor for Bible Translator (1957-59) and Language Sciences (1983-92).
When he retired from Bethel College in 1987, he was awarded the college's first annual Distinguished Teaching Award. In his retirement, he continued to write extensively and also edited Jacob A. Loewen's book, The Bible in Cross-Cultural Perspective, for which he wrote an introduction.
In 1997, Smalley died of a heart attack at the age of 74.
Smalley, William. "My Pilgrimage in Mission."
International Bulletin of Missionary Research
15, no. 2 (1991): 70-73.
Beckstrom, Maja. "Scholar of Hmong language praised for 'invaluable' work." St. Paul Pioneer Press, December 21, 1997: 1B, 6B.
Born April 4 in Jerusalem, Palestine
Earns B.A. from Houghton College in English Literature
Studies at Missionary Training Institute
Studies at Summer Institute of Linguistics at University of Oklahoma
Serves as missionary linguist in Vietnam
Assigned to Luang Prabang, Laos to analyze the Khmu' language and prepare language lessons for other missionaries to learn the language
Works with Reverend G. Linwood Barney and Father Yves Bertrais in developing Hmong RPA
Translation consultant for American Bible Society
Editor of Practical Anthropology (now known as Missiology)
Receives doctorate in linguistic anthropology at Columbia University
Publishes Outline of Khmu' Structure
Regional translations coordinator with the United Bible Societies
Translation consultant with the United Bible Societies
Professor of linguistics at Bethel College
Honorary fellow with the University of Minnesota Southeast Asia Refugee Studies Program studying Hmong adaptation to life in the United States
Fulbright Fellow studying linguistic diversity and national unity in Thailand
Publishes Mother of Writing: The Origin and Development of a Hmong Messianic Script and The Life of Shong Lue Yang: Hmong "Mother of Writing"
Publishes Linguistic Diversity and National Unity: Language Ecology in Thailand
Dies of a heart attack at the age of 74 on December 16