Sunday 24 August 2014

Britain is no longer a country for and bids "Farewell" to an old Professor of Linguistics called Geoffrey Leech

Geoffrey, a renown scholar with an international reputation, whose work in linguistics deepened our understanding of the English language has died at the age of 78.

What you possibly didn't know about Geoffrey, that he :

* was born in Gloucester, three years before the outbreak of the Second World War in 1936, brought up in the small county town of Tewkesbury, where his father was the manager of a bank and went, from the age of 11 to 18, to the small Tewkesbury Grammar School, founded and endowed by a wealthy London mercer in 1625 'for the better education of boys and youth in good arts, learning. virtue and education.'

* left school in 1954, served two years National Service in the R.A.F in Germany where he spent most of his time shorthand-typing, reached the rank of 'Senior Aircraftman' and left intending to study French at university had not Professor A.H. Smith, Quain Professor of English at University College London, given him an interview for a university place at his country cottage as a favour to his father, who drank at the same pub, 'The Hobnails', offered him a student place in his faculty at UCL.

* as an undergraduate in his early twenties in the late 1950's, became particularly interested in the historical component of language work, studying Old and Middle English with Beowulf in the original and gleaned much from distinguished phoneticians and senior teachers, Daniel Jones (left0, the first Professor of Phonetics in Britain and 'Father of the British School of Phonetics' and J. R. Firth, the first British Professor and 'Father of Linguistics' and later said : 'I could scarcely
understand his message, although I remember that the term ‘context of situation’ figured prominently in it' .

* later wrote that it was 'a very happy accident' that he went to UCL to study English which provided him with an entrée to a circle of distinguished language scholars and gave him roughly equal doses of language and of literature, which  probably explained why he later took a deep interest in the relation between linguistic and literary studies and the interdisciplinary field of stylistics.

* graduated in 1959 with only a an 'undistinguished' 2.1 degree in English Language and Literature and was granted a State Studentship to study for an London University, based on the language of tv commercials, a new medium of advertising in Britain, but with little supervision grew disheartened and left the University.

* at the age of 24 in the summer of 1960, taught English for a term at the City of Coventry Boarding School, where he was best-known to the pupils for his amiable manner and sparkling piano-playing and then began teaching adolescents at Clarendon School (left), a state secondary on an overspill London County Council estate in South Oxley.

* made 'a very indifferent shot at being an English teacher' for 18 months, keeping up his M.A. studies in his spare time, married Fanny, a psychology graduate the following year and in 1962, and thanks to Professor Smith, was granted a 'research studentship' of £750 per year at his old department at UCL, by a tv mogul at the commercial company, ATV, for research into the language of advertising.

* was 'overjoyed to have the opportunity to abandon school teaching and take up full-time research' but had the problem of a lack of research tools until the newly chaired, Professor Randolph Quirk, suggested using the new linguistics coming out of the USA,  to arrive at the best analytic categories for describing the language of tv and in 1962 at the age of 26 applied for and much to his surprise and delight, was offered, the post of 'temporary assistant lecturer'.

* delivered his first series of lectures on ‘Rhetoric’ and given carte blanche to teach as he wished, ditched the dull 'history of rhetoric from classical times' in favour of treating literary language, especially poetry, from the modern linguistic point of view and in 1963 finished his MA thesis on 'The Language of Commercial Television Advertising'  having studied tv commercials ad nauseam and tired of the whole subject, sent ATV a copy and found 'there was no evidence that they read it or found it useful.'

* in 1964, at the age of 28, was given the opportunity to spend a year in the USA as a Harkness Fellow, after an interview by a panel of ten fom the academic world, including Sir Isaiah Berlin and with Fanny and baby son, crossed the Atlantic on the liner 'Queen Elizabeth', to study linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology' 

* on occasion had lunch with Naom Chomsky and 'was nonplussed yet fascinated to find all the talk to be of politics and how to keep Senator Barry Goldwater out of office and not about linguistics and the latest models of transformational grammar' and after a 3 month tour with Fanny and baby as tent campers, returned to Britain in the 'Queen Mary'.

* had learned much about many areas of linguistics at MIT but also 'a sense of conviction – the assumption that MIT led the world, as indeed it unquestionably did, and that others’ heterodox opinions need not be treated too seriously' and 'I suppose I must have carried something of that arrogance back to the UK with me. However, any sense of superiority was soon punctured when I gave a paper on semantics at the Philological Society, where my nascent semantic theory met with some scepticism and hostility'.

*  between 1965 and '69, rethought and developed his work on semantics until it became a PhD thesis : 'An Approach to the Semantics of Place, Time and Modality in Modern English which published in 1969 in the Longman Linguistics Library and, although soon out of print. helped him win a reputation in linguistics.

* in 1969, at the age of 33, became Senior Lecturer at the new University of Lancaster and on arrival, was further promoted to the equivalent of 'Associate Professor', became busy with a heavy teaching load,writing 'Meaning and the English Verb' and 'Semantics', published in 1971 and '74 and at the same time consumed by the battle known as the Craig Affair' in the English Department, between two factions with the ‘left’ supported by the students and the ‘right’ by the Head of Department, which disrupted the whole campus and became a cause célèbre in the national press.

* in 1972, co-authored 'A Grammar of Contemporary English', which was inspired by the desire to close the gap between the type of 'academic' and 'theory-driven grammar' that was studied in linguistics departments and the type of grammar which was needed for the English language classroom and saw it become well-known throughout the world as a source of descriptive information on English grammar.

* at the age of 38 in 1974, was  promoted to the post of Professor of Linguistics and Modern English Language and saw the University become one of the first to offer a B.A. in Linguistics.

* in 1976, was about to abandon a project he had started in 1970 with a small group of young linguists known as the 'Gang of Four' (seen here seated on the extreme right), to develop a computer corpus of 'British English', to match the recently completed, Brown University Corpus of American English.

* had planned the corpus to consist of more than a million words, but had been hampered by primitive computing facilities and assailed by problems concerning copyright, related in 2013 in conversation for Lancaster University for its online course in corpus linguistics :

* gave the 'corpus project' to former student of Jan Svartvik and Swedish scholar, Stig Johansson, who took it to Norway where they gained permissions from UK copyright holders who had withheld it and so saw the 'Lancaster-Oslo/Bergen Corpus' or the 'LOB Corpus' born and has since witnessed its use throughout the world.

* in 1983, worked with colleague, Mick Short, on : 'Style in Fiction: A Linguistic Introduction to English Fictional Prose', intended to be a course book for students, but also an attempt to develop a theory of prose style, which he found particularly difficult to write, but also most satisfying to have written and saw it well received.

*  considered his A 'Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language', published in 1985, as the summit of  his career, after which he began to be treated as ‘the authority on English grammar' and was bestowed with honours :  Fellow of the British Academy, an honorary doctorate of the University of Lund, Fellow of his old college, University College London and in 1989, member of the Academia Europaea.

* between 1991 and '95, was involved in the 'British National Corpus', a collaborative project between three publishers, OUP, Longman and Chambers, two universities, Oxford and Lancaster and one national institution, the British Library, which after great pressures and enormous difficulties, resulted in the 100-million-word corpus of spoken and written English, an important national achievement in which Britain led the way to be followed by other countries, including the USA.

* took early retirement in 1996, but continued to work as a Research Professor and at the age of 72 in 2008 wrote : 'When I look back on more than forty years of research and publication, it is the working on language in English Literature that has given me the most enduring pleasure'.

* in 2009 said : 'while I am fortunate enough to remain healthy, I would like to continue my research and publication in the fields of corpus linguistics, stylistics, the pragmatics of politeness, and English grammar. As far as I am concerned, ‘old professors never die, they merely fade away’.

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