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Mon 21 Sep 1992

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  1. Richard Ogden, David Abercrombie: obituary

Message 1: David Abercrombie: obituary

Date: Mon, 21 Sep 92 13:29 GMT
From: Richard Ogden <RAO1VAXB.YORK.AC.UK>
Subject: David Abercrombie: obituary

[An edited version of this obituary appeared in The Times at the end of
August. The full version given here is sent with the permission of the
author, John Kelly, Senior Lecturer in phonetics and phonology at the
University of York.]

David Abercrombie: Obituary

Professor David Abercrombie FBA, phonetician, died in Edinburgh on July 4th
at the age of 82. He was born in Birkenhead on December l9th 1909.

Appointed Lecturer in Phonetics in the University of Edinburgh in 1948, David
Abercrombie went on to establish within a decade an outstanding Department of
Phonetics that was to attract academics and postgraduate students from
throughout the world. The department was in these earlier years housed in a
rather drab basement, but the quality of the teaching that took place there,
of the ideas that underlay it and of the work done to elaborate these ideas
into phonetic theory, rose well above that of the surroundings.

Some part of Abercrombie's strength in building up his department came from
the traditions of his background and the diversity of his experience. His
father, Lascelles, was a distinguished scholar in the field of English
Literature and a recognised poet; and both his uncle, Sir Patrick Abercrombie,
the city planner and architect, and brother, Michael, the biologist, rose to
distinction in their own spheres of academic activity. A particular advantage,
though, was the training he received in London during the 1930s. Here, whilst
working as a postgraduate student, he was taught by Jones and Firth at
University College, and later at the LSE by Malinowski. In Edinburgh he was
able, when moulding his own approach, to bring together in a well-integrated
whole the sound and substantial phonetic training of Jones with the interest
in wider linguistic concerns which characterised the work of Firth and
Malinowski. In this he was aided by a number of excellent scholars some of
whom had shared this early dual training in London.

To this synthesis he added a deep knowledge of and respect for early writings
on phonetics in Britain. This was not just an antiquarian interest -
Abercrombie's aim was to demonstrate the values of the the earlier tradition
and evoke new interest in it - and he took a quiet delight too in showing just
how often the wheel had been re-invented, especially to pompous reinventors!
His very special combination of interests and abilities led to a distinctive
and cogent programme of teaching and research in Edinburgh, his own lucid and
definitive writings being amongst its key products. He was appointed Professor
in 1964.

Abercrombie once said that an essential quality in the head of a university
department must be kindness, to bring out the best in students and staff. The
result of this belief was that his department was for many years a happy place
to work in. He took a warm and unobtrusive interest in not only the academic
activities of his staff, but also their personal welfare; and allowed his home
to be a kind of extension of the department, providing there with his wife
Mary a most generous and unassuming hospitality to staff, students, friends
and visitors. His great relish for company and good food, and particularly the
pleasure he took in fine wines, were a stimulus to the success of these
occasions, as were his total lack of self-importance and his ability, despite
an underlying shyness, to take an interest in people of all conditions.
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