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Review of  Linguistics in Britain

Reviewer: Fiona Carolyn Marshall
Book Title: Linguistics in Britain
Book Author: Keith Brown Vivien Law
Publisher: Wiley
Linguistic Field(s): History of Linguistics
Issue Number: 15.1555

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Date: Fri, 14 May 2004 18:36:22 +0100
From: Fiona Carolyn Marshall
Subject: Linguistics in Britain: Personal Histories

EDITOR: Brown, Keith; Law, Vivien
TITLE: Linguistics in Britain
SUBTITLE: Personal Histories
PUBLISHER: Blackwell publishing
YEAR: 2002

Fiona Marshall, University of Sheffield

'Linguistics in Britain: Personal Histories' is the 36th
volume in the Publications of the Philological Society
series. Commissioned by the Council of the Philological
Society, this volume comprises the 'linguistic
autobiographies' of 23 leading British linguists whose
significant contributions to the development of the
subject in Britain have thus far been unattested. To
date, the modicum of literature on the history of 20th-
century British linguistics has been concerned primarily,
though not solely, with the earlier schools of linguistic
thought and the various battles between them. Langendoen
(1968) focuses on the contributions of J. R. Firth (1890-
1960) and the so-called 'London School', together with
the influential work of Bronislaw Malinowsky (1884-1942).
Sampson (1980) deals with the major strands of
international linguistic theory and, accordingly, makes
only one concession to British linguistics in a short
chapter on the 'London School' (Sampson 1980, Ch.9).
Between them, Robins (1963); Harris (1988); and Matthews
(1999) effectively span the first six decades of the 20th
century. In his fine overview of 20th-century
linguistics, Joseph (1995) briefly considers the role of
British linguistics in an international context, whilst
Palmer (1995) and Robins (1992) complement the existing
literature on British linguistics with respective
synopses of Firth's contributions to linguistics and to
the Philological Society. As Borsley (Unpublished)
recently observed, the history of 20th-century British
linguistics undoubtedly remains an under-researched area.
Brown and Law (2002) is, therefore, a welcome addition to
the literature.

This edited volume is essentially a collection of memoirs
and not a history of linguistics as such. Indeed the
editors candidly admit to not having shaped 'an academic
history of linguistics in Britain' (p. vii).
Nevertheless, Brown and Law (2002) provides the reader
with a fascinating insight into the significant
achievements of British linguistics in the second half of
the 20th century. Solicited contributions featured in this
volume include those by Jean Aitchison (pp. 1-13), W.
Sidney Allen (pp. 14-27), R. E. Asher (pp. 28-42), John
Bendor-Samuel (pp. 43-52), Gillian Brown (pp. 53-66), N.
E. Collinge (pp. 67-77), Joseph Cremona (pp. 78-90),
David Crystal (pp. 91-103), Gerald Gazdar (pp. 105-115),
Michael Halliday (pp. 116-126), Richard Hudson (pp. 127-
138), John Laver (pp. 139-154), Geoffrey Leech(pp. 155-
169), John Lyons (pp. 170-199), Peter Matthews (pp. 200-
212), Anna Morpurgo-Davies (pp. 213-227), Frank Palmer
(pp. 228-238), Randolph Quirk (pp. 239-248), R. H. Robins
(pp. 249-261), Neil Smith (pp. 270-273), John Trim (pp.
274-285), Peter Trudgill (pp. 286-296), and John Wells
(pp. 270-306).

Contributors were not given strict format guidelines to
follow. However, they were asked to state their reasons
for embarking upon a career in linguistics. They were
also invited to comment on what aspects of linguistics
attracted them to particular branches; to reflect on the
various ways in which they were influenced by their few
seniors (e.g. Firth and Daniel Jones (1881-1967)); and to
account for what they deem to be their own contributions
to the intellectual and institutional development of
linguistics in the 20th century. As Brown and Law point
out in the Preface to this volume (pp. vii-viii), hardly
any linguistics degree courses had been established in
British universities prior to the 1950s, and the majority
were set up in the 1960s and later (p. vii).
Consequently, the first generation of British linguists
was forced to try and establish itself in a field which,
in terms of securing institutional status, was in its
foetal stages. Of particular interest in this anthology
of papers is the way in which the development of the
subject is observed, at times from very different
perspectives, through the eyes of these eminent linguists
who, amongst many others not included in this volume,
were centrally involved in its expansion.

Naturally, given that the field of linguistics was in a
relative stage of infancy in the mid-20th century, the
majority of contributors to this volume did not harbour
any long-term ambitions to become linguists. Many appear
to have fallen into the subject by chance; either due a
background in classical languages, an inherent curiosity
about language(s), or subsequent to coming into contact
with an inspirational senior or colleague. It seems that
Firth in particular played a major role in the early
development of linguistics in Britain. In his
contribution to Brown and Law (2002), R. H. Robins (1921-
2000) remembers that Firth made no secret of his desire
to ensure that the Department of Phonetics and
Linguistics at the School of Oriental and African Studies
(SOAS) became 'a centre of general linguistics' in post-
war Britain (p. 254). According to Robins, his
professional career in linguistics owed a debt to Firth
more than to any other major figure in the field (ibid.).
Many others, including Geoffrey Leech and John Lyons,
share this view. Leech maintains that Firth was 'in many
ways the founder of linguistics as a discipline in the
UK' (p. 156); whilst Lyons testifies that at one time
Firth's was indeed 'the best department of linguistics in
Britain' (p. 175).

We often take it for granted that talented students are
able to move with relative ease from one stage in their
university education to the next (subject to obtaining
funding of course). This was not always the case
however. The onset of the Second World War (WWII), for
example, temporarily impeded the education of many gifted
students and, to some extent, the progress of the
subject. Amongst these conscripted students were Sidney
Allen (pp. 17-18), Frank Palmer (p. 230), Randolph Quirk
(p. 241), and R. H. Robins (pp. 251-253). John Trim
observes the difficulty for younger scholars in
conceiving of 'the situation of academic life half a
century ago' (p. 274). However, this volume goes some
way towards finding a remedy for this problem. The
reminiscences of the more senior members of the
linguistics community serve as a reminder to post-war
generations that the journey through the university
system has not always been straightforward.

Harsh realities of warfare aside, we ought to acknowledge
that students of today are faced with an entirely
different set of problems. University cutbacks have made
it increasingly difficult for doctoral candidates to
obtain financial assistance. Lack of funding is a
problem with which Peter Trudgill is all too familiar.
Initially, Trudgill was 'not successful in an application
for a further state studentship', and it seemed he would
be unable to undertake his proposed PhD at Edinburgh
(1967-70) (p. 289). However, he was rewarded for his
persistent attempts to secure financial support when his
former College (King's, Cambridge) agreed to fund his
first year. Subsequently Edinburgh funded him. Trudgill
firmly believes that had he been a student in today's
climate, with a failed funding application behind him, he
would almost certainly 'have had no chance of a career in
academic linguistics' (p. 290). When bearing in mind
Trudgill's highly influential work in the burgeoning
field of sociolinguistics, it may well cause us to
consider the potential cost for linguistics if equally
exceptional students are unable to embark upon a career
in the field due to an absence of funding.

Reading 'Linguistics in Britain', it is hard to believe
the discipline has achieved so much in such a short
amount of time. Both John Bendor-Samuel (p. 51) and
Peter Matthews (p. 210) report on the unavoidable
difficulties in keeping abreast of the latest trends in
linguistic theory as the field has proliferated. In fact,
Jean Aitchison considers her most important role in
developing the discipline to be rooted in her attempts to
link together the ever-escalating subsections of
linguistics to present a 'broader view' (pp. 10-11). As
the discipline has expanded, and simultaneously sub-
divided, its practitioners have initiated and witnessed
many changes; not only as far as developments in
linguistic theory are concerned but also on a more
practical level. R. E. Asher recalls, for example, that
the then obligatory field trips at SOAS were made all the
more difficult by having to transport cumbersome
recording equipment from one exotic location to the next
(p. 33).

One of the major attractions of this volume is the
disarming honesty with which each contributor tells
his/her story. John Lyons and Peter Matthews, in
particular, are refreshingly honest and self-effacing.
Lyons writes an honourable account of his early successes
along with a moving description of the ways in which his
recurring illness was to have adverse effects on his
later career (p. 170-199). Matthews is equally unassuming
and confesses that he has often 'gone left when the field
has gone right' (p. 211). Daring to turn left when
others are turning right in droves is not necessarily a
bad thing. For my part, it is not difficult to agree
categorically with Matthews when he declares that
'academic work is definitely more fun if one does not run
with the hounds' (ibid.).

It is not unduly difficult to see why this volume is
proving enormously popular within the linguistics
community. It appeals to seasoned academics and students
alike. In addition to reflecting on linguistic
achievements from a historical perspective, each
autobiographical account affords the reader a rare
personal insight into the range of problems faced by
those engaged in a typical struggle en route to
institutional status. Perhaps an obvious limitation of
'Linguistics in Britain' is that it is not an academic
history, but it does not claim to be a scholarly
contribution to the history of linguistics literature.
If this collection is taken as intended, that is as a
series of engaging personal reminiscences written by some
of those who can rightly claim to have played a central
role in the development of linguistics in the 20th
century; the strengths undoubtedly prevail over the few
weaknesses. Of course, it is regrettable that many
linguists of equal distinction to those featured in this
volume are conspicuous by their absence (e.g. Roy Harris,
Angus McIntosh, and Jeffrey Ellis). However, the editor
of any collected volume of papers will be alert to the
problems involved in recruiting willing participants. It
is especially difficult to find contributors whose
ability to participate in a project is not constrained in
some measure by time and/or work commitments. Both John
Lyons (p. 170) and Randolph Quirk (p. 247) admit that,
for various reasons, they were initially reluctant to
contribute to the volume.

Since each contributor was encouraged to construct
his/her own historical account according to the
individual style and approach preferred, it could be
argued that these 'loose guidelines' (p. vii) have
resulted in a volume lacking in uniformity. However, I
would argue that it is precisely this irregular format
that adds to the unorthodox but integral quality of this
exemplary volume. Inevitably there are a few factual
discrepancies (e.g. according his great friend Frank
Palmer, Robins died in April 2000 (p. 231), not 2001, as
stated on p. 249). However, inconsistencies are to be
expected in a miscellaneous volume of personal
recollections. Most worthy of note perhaps is Michael
Halliday's contention that the first British chair in
linguistics was not, as is commonly supposed, established
for Firth at SOAS in 1944. Contrary to the accepted
view, Halliday suggests the first linguistics chair in
Britain did, in fact, belong to Alan Strode Campbell Ross
(1907-80) (p. 122). According to his entry in 'Who
was who' (1981), Ross was a lecturer in English Language
at Leeds University (1936-40). Following the War, he
lectured in English Language at Birmingham University
(1946), and the following year he was promoted to Reader
(1947). Subsequently, Ross held a chair in English
Language, also at Birmingham (1948-51), and he became
Professor of Linguistics thereafter (1951-74). In 1944,
when Firth was appointed to his chair in Linguistics,
Ross was working for the Foreign Office (1940-45). On
this basis, it seems that Ross's chair in Linguistics did
not predate Firth's. To his credit, Halliday freely
admits that memory often 'constructs its own recordings
of past events' (p. 116) and that it cannot, therefore,
be relied upon entirely. Peter Matthews also recognises
that we all have a tendency to be 'seduced by rosy
memories' (p. 206). Brown and Law mention the problems
involved in relying on the recollections of individuals
and, in the absence of being able to gain access to the
appropriate records, they wisely concede to having made
no attempt at synchronizing the personal accounts therein
(p. vii).

'Linguistics in Britain: Personal Histories' was proposed
by the Council of the Philological Society partly to mark
the recent millennial juncture. The advent of a new
millennium, and indeed the turn of the 21st century, does
present a most opportune moment to consider the
achievements of a discipline so youthful that it achieved
institutional status in the living memory of each
contributor to this volume. Brown and Law (2002)
successfully reflects on the rapid growth of British
linguistics since WWII and, perhaps more importantly, it
encourages subsequent generations of linguists to
contemplate and appreciate the considerable achievements
of the subject's first cluster of practitioners. What
links this collection of papers into a single coherent
and extremely readable monograph is the fact that each
author can claim to have contributed in part to the rapid
expansion of linguistics, both as an intellectual and
institutional discipline in Britain during the past fifty
years, and each can claim to have contributed in whole to
the lively character of the book.

Borsley, R. D. Unpublished. 'British linguistics in the
Chomskyan era'. Online version available at:

Harris, R. (ed.) 1988. Linguistic Thought in England
1914-1945. London: Duckworth.

Joseph, J. E. 1995. 'Trends in Twentieth-Century
Linguistics: An Overview'. In Koerner, E. F. K., and R.
E. Asher (eds) 1995, 221-233.

Koerner, E. F. K., and R. E. Asher (eds) 1995. Concise
History of the Language Sciences: From the Sumerians to
the Cognitivists. Oxford: Pergamon.

Langendoen, D. T. 1968. The London School of Linguistics:
A study of the linguistic contributions of B. Malinowski
and J. R. Firth. Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press.

Matthews, P. H. 1999. 'Linguistic theory and the
Philological Society from the 1930s to the 1960s'. In
Transactions of the Philological Society, Vol. 97:2, 259-
285 [Written version of a paper from the Sesquicentennial
Symposium of the Philological Society, delivered on the
afternoon of Saturday 14 November 1992 under the title
'The impact of linguistic theory on the Philological
Society in the twentieth century'].

Palmer, F. 1995. 'Firth and the London School of
Linguistics'. In Koerner, E. F. K., and R. E. Asher (eds)
1995, 268-272.

Robins, R. H. 1963. 'General Linguistics in Great Britain
1930-1960'. In Mohrmann C., F. Norman, and A. Sommerfelt
(eds) 1963. Trends in Modern Linguistics. Antwerp:

Robins, R. H. 1992. 'The London School of Linguistics and
the Philological Society' [Unpublished opening paper from
the Sesquicentennial Symposium of the Philological
Society, delivered on the evening of Friday 13 November
1992 (typescript in the possession of Professor Peter

Sampson, G. 1980. Schools of Linguistics: Competition and
Evolution. London: Hutchinson.

Who was who, Vol. VII 1971-1980. 1981. 'Alan Strode
Campbell Ross'. London: A & C Black, p. 686.
Fiona Marshall is currently an AHRB-funded (first-year)
PhD student at the University of Sheffield. Her doctoral
thesis involves determining the role of the learned
societies in British linguistics in the 20th century. She
is in the process of cataloguing the archives of the
Philological Society; and her forthcoming article, 'Edwin
Guest: Historian, Philologist, and Founder of the
Philological Society of London', is due for publication
in May 2004 (The Henry Sweet Society Bulletin, Issue No.

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