LINGUIST List 15.1055

Wed Mar 31 2004

All: Obituary for Larry Trask

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  1. Jose Ignacio Hualde, Obituary for Larry Trask

Message 1: Obituary for Larry Trask

Date: Tue, 30 Mar 2004 09:41:26 -0500 (EST)
From: Jose Ignacio Hualde <jihualdeuiuc.edu>
Subject: Obituary for Larry Trask


Larry Trask was Professor of Linguistics at the University of Sussex
and a leading expert on Basque and historical linguistics. Andrew
Brown, who published an article on Larry's life and work last year
(The Guardian, June 26, 2003), ranks Larry Trask among those linguists
who deserve to be famous. In fact, R. L. Trask is one of the few
linguists whose name you are likely to see on the shelves of your
local general bookstore. And there are good reasons for it. His two
short books Language: The basics (1995) and Introducing Linguistics
(2000) are a delightful introduction to the field, written by someone
who had an extraordinarily thorough command of all areas of
Linguistics, a passion for the field and a rare facility with
words. 

The amazing breadth of his linguistic knowledge is reflected in the
technical dictionaries that he published: A dictionary of grammatical
terms in linguistics (1993), A dictionary of phonetics and phonology
(1996), A student's dictionary of language and linguistics (1997), Key
concepts in language and linguistics (1999), The dictionary of
historical and comparative linguistics (2000) and The Penguin
dictionary of English grammar (2000). His authorship of all these
extremely useful technical dictionaries demonstrates that he was
anything but a narrow specialist with only a cursory acquaintance with
areas of linguistics outside of his field of specialization. He also
published a couple of books intended for a general readership of users
of the English language: The Penguin guide to punctuation (1997) and
Mind the gaffe: the Penguin guide to common errors in English
(2001). His work served a wide readership of scholars, students and
laymen. 

In the field of historical linguistics his contributions include the
textbooks Language change (1994) and Historical linguistics (1996) as
well as his coedited volume Time depth in historical linguistics
(2000). His impact on the field of Basque Linguistics was profound.
His book The history of Basque (1997) is an essential reference on
diachronic Basque linguistics and the best introduction to Basque
linguistics as a whole. He also coedited Towards a history of the
Basque language (1995) and published many important articles and book
chapters dealing with topics on the history and structure of Basque.

Even more amazingly perhaps, Linguistics was not Larry's first and
only academic love. Larry Trask was born on the 10th of November of
1944 in upstate New York and obtained a BS and MA in Chemistry (the
latter from Brandeis Univ.) before he moved to England in 1970 and
earned a PhD in Linguistics (at the School of Oriental and African
Studies in the Univ. of London). He kept abreast of developments in
Chemistry all his life. Perhaps because of his background in the "hard
sciences" he was not afraid to attack and debunk misguided efforts in
comparative linguistics by uninformed scientists (a good example is
his scathing review of " Toward a phylogenetic chronology of ancient
Gaulish, Celtic, and Indo-European" in LINGUIST 14.1825 of 07 Jul
2003).

Larry Trask was a passionate scholar who loved Linguistics and wanted
to preserve its empirical foundations. In published reviews and
electronic discussion lists, he was very direct, and often very funny,
in his criticism of what he saw as empirically weak speculation, in
areas such as the search of relatives for the Basque language,
long-range comparison, and much of Chomskyan linguistics.

Two years ago Larry became seriously ill as he was working, among
other things, on a Basque etymological dictionary. His recovery, a
few months later, was not to last. Larry Trask died on the 27th of
March of 2004. His work on Basque linguistics, his technical
dictionaries, his textbooks and other work will continue to influence
students and scholars. He will be fondly remembered by those of us who
were fortunate enough to know him.
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