LINGUIST List 11.1020

Thu May 4 2000

All: Obituary - R. H. Robins

Editor for this issue: Lydia Grebenyova <>


  1. Dick Hudson, Obituary - R. H. Robins

Message 1: Obituary - R. H. Robins

Date: Thu, 04 May 2000 21:54:28 +0100
From: Dick Hudson <>
Subject: Obituary - R. H. Robins

Many of you will be sad to hear of the recent death of the distinguished
British linguist Professor R. (Bobby) H. Robins, who belonged (until his
retirement) to the Department of Phonetics and Linguistics at the School of
Oriental and African Studies, of the University of London. I have been
asked to broadcast these two complementary obituary messages which were
written independently. The first was written for a general audience by
Vivien Law (Linguistics, Cambridge), and the second for distribution within
SOAS by Dick Hayward (Africa Dept, SOAS).
	Dick Hudson

>From Vivien Law:

The linguistics community will be greatly saddened to hear of the death of
Professor R. H. Robins at his home in Caterham on Thursday 20 April at the
age of 78. His work spanned several diverse areas, from Firthian prosodic
analysis to endangered languages and the history of linguistic thought. His
textbooks, General Linguistics: An Introductory Survey (1964) and A Short
History of Linguistics (1967), gave definitive shape to their respective
fields in the minds of generations of students in Britain and abroad. 	

Robins was diverted from Classics, his first love, which he studied at New
College, Oxford, into linguistics via a stint teaching Japanese to RAF
servicemen during the Second World War. So began a lifelong association
with the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, and more
especially with J. R. Firth, the Head of the Department of Phonetics and
Linguistics when Robins joined it. Firth pointed him in the direction of
what were to become two of his major research areas: the Yurok language of
northern California, on which he carried out field work in the early 1950s,
 and ancient linguistics. In due course he became Professor and Head of
Department, and prided himself upon the department's major contribution to
British linguistics and upon its members' harmonious coexistence, no matter
 what their theoretical allegiance. He himself had a wide-ranging
appreciation of various approaches to linguistics and gave bandwagons a
wide berth. After retirement he dedicated himself to promoting the history
of linguistics, partly through his own writings (e.g. The Byzantine
Grammarians: Their Place in History (1993)), partly through his
enthusiastic attendance at conferences of the various national societies
for the subject (he was still Chairman of the Henry Sweet Society for the
History of Linguistic Ideas at the time of his death, and had just returned
 from a conference on ancient linguistics in Cyprus), and most importantly,
 through his vigorous support of the younger scholars teaching the subject
at other British universities - Luton, Sheffield and Cambridge. He himself
was teaching at both Luton and Cambridge in the early months of 2000. The
decline of linguistics at his old institution grieved him greatly in his
last years. 	
His funeral is to be held at St John's Church, Caterham, on Monday 15 May
at 1 pm. All are very welcome. A memorial service is planned for a later

>From Dick Hayward:

Many members of the School will have been saddened this week to learn of
the death of Professor R.H. Robins, known to all of us as Bobby Robins.
He passed away suddenly in his home on Good Friday. He had very recently
returned from a linguistic conference in Cyprus, where he had
participated both as a speaker and in chairing sessions. It is likely
that this sorry news will not yet have reached much of the worldwide
community of linguists, but when it does, it will certainly occasion a
sense of very great loss, for he was a scholar of truly international
standing and a much-loved man.
Professor Robins was first appointed to a post in SOAS in 1948, where he
became a lecturer in the department of Phonetics and Linguistics, headed
then by the brilliant, if redoubtable, Professor J.R. Firth. He continued
in that department for nearly forty years, during which time he seems to
have been at the heart of every enterprise seeking to promote the subject
of linguistics within the School, within Britain, and in the wider world
beyond. His acknowledged scholarly expertise and outstanding academic
leadership ensured that in 1966 he was seen quite uncontroversially as the
worthy successor to Firth as Professor of General Linguistics in the
University of London. He was later elected to fellowship of the British
Academy. His Head of Departmentship ran from 1969 almost until his
retirement in 1986, and all of those who had the privilege of being
members of that department will remember what an excellent HoD he was.
Departmental meetings were fixed fortnightly Friday-morning events, and
nobody would have dreamed of missing them. The 'administrative chores',
as Robins termed them, being summarily, albeit efficiently, disposed of we
would embark on what was called 'our real business', namely the
presentation of a seminar paper by one or other of the Department (though
there were occasional visiting speakers) followed by a full-blooded
academic debate, of which Robins' polite but searching questions and
comments combining both erudition and wit - delivered in a wonderfully
unique and inimitable style of English - were an unforgettable feature.
Linguistics is a discipline all-too-often to be characterized by
doctrinairianism and partisanship, but Robins' own position was certainly
a very broad church one amidst the various rival theoretical stances.
This 'tolerance' in no way stemmed from a lack of familiarity with and
understanding of what was going on in the field; rather more probably it
arose out of the longer time-perspective respecting the subject as a
whole, with which, as a historian of linguistic ideas, he was peculiarly
enabled to evaluate any real originality in developments.
Robins was the author of a number of highly valued linguistic works. His
principal field of research would certainly have to be identified as 'the
history of linguistic ideas', in which his widely-used textbook Short
History of Linguistics (1st Edition1967) represents the more popular end of
 a long list of publications which culminated in the deeply scholarly The
Byzantine Grammarians (1993 ). A far-cry from this was one of his
earlier works which was a monograph on the now extinct Yurok language of
California; and in the same spirit of primary descriptive linguistic work
he wrote a series of articles on the Sundanese language, which were
subsequently published as a single bilingual Indonesian / English
collection (Sistem dan Struktur Bahasa Sunda) in 1973. But of all his
numerous books and articles the one for which he has become most widely
known is his General Linguistics: An Introductory Survey (1st Edition
1964). This excellent examplar of good textbook writing has seen
numerous editions and reprintings, and has been translated into many
European languages, as well as several Asian ones.
Robins' commitment and leadership qualities were recognised in many other
fora of linguists; for example, the Henry Sweet Society for the History of
Linguistics, of which he was President, and the International Committee of
Linguists, of which he was British Representative and one-time President.
But the body with which he will always be most strongly associated in the
memory of the linguistic fraternity is the Philological Society, the oldest
linguistics society in existence. Robins was its Secretary for 18 years
and subsequently became its President. When the fixed period of presidency
came to an end, the Society conferred on him the title of President
Emeritus, which was a title and status created uniquely in his honour. The
general recognition of his senior stature within the field has generated
two Festschriften in his honour.
It would be quite inappropriate to close this brief appreciation without
saying something about Bobby Robins' human qualities. Invariably
courteous, urbane, even affable, he yet remained an essentially private
man, for whom friendships were forged largely within the working sphere of
linguistic scholarship. His sharp mind generally led him to form quick
opinions both of ideas and men. This meant that while on the one hand he
did not suffer fools at all gladly, for those who received the stamp of
approval, his warm support and loyalty were without stint. So considerable
 were his own motivation and disciplined scholarly habits that he seemed
incapable of imagining that all of his accepted colleagues might not be
similarly constituted - he would probably have found the present-day
accountability exercises of RAE and TQA not simply irksome but rather
incomprehensible as to their necessity. But his faith in others gave rise,
I believe, to a quite general feeling both in his Department and probably
more widely that Bobby's expectations must be lived up to. It was a very
old-fashioned style of line-management, but it was singularly effective.
It is with considerable respect and much affection that we must note the
passing of this very distinguished man.

Dick Hayward 

Richard (= Dick) Hudson

Phonetics and Linguistics, University College London, 
Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT.
+44(0)20 7679 3152; fax +44(0)20 7383 4108;
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue