LINGUIST List 15.1055

Wed Mar 31 2004

All: Obituary for Larry Trask

Editor for this issue: Sarah Murray <>


  • 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 <>
    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.