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Turkey RPCV and Linguist Larry Trask dies in England
Turkey RPCV and Linguist Larry Trask dies in England
Obituary: Larry Trask: Leading linguist who made the subject accessible
Apr 8, 2004
Larry Trask, who has died of motor neurone disease aged 59, was one of the world's leading experts on the Basque language. A professor of linguistics at Sussex University, he wrote the outstanding The History Of Basque (1997), a superb vindication of the methods of classical historical linguistics, about which he also wrote a fine textbook, Historical Linguistics (1996). And Larry was not just scholarly. His books are fun: witty, occasionally partisan, beautifully clear and readable.
An interest in Basque often heralds a descent into obsessiveness; the world is full of amateurs - and others - determined to prove that Basque is not historically isolated but is related to some other language, or to all of them. Larry patiently crushed all such attempts with a secure grasp of all the literature.
His training in hard science also made him well-placed to flay ill-informed efforts in the field of Basque studies to find parallels between genetic trees and linguistic trees. His involvement in this science of the origin and evolution of language brought him prominence, for instance as the co-editor with archaeologist Colin Renfrew and linguist April McMahon of the two- volume Time Depth In Historical Linguistics (2000), but Larry never sought the front of the stage; he arrived there and stayed there because others recognised his authority and his gifts as a communicator.
He was born in Cattaraugus County, New York State, and in the 1960s took degrees in chemistry at Rensselaer College, New York State and Brandeis University, Massachusetts, before ditching his PhD and becoming a chemistry teacher with the United States Peace Corps.
He taught at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara but, having left his job in Turkey in 1970 to the sound of gunfire, found himself in London. There he met and married, his first wife, Esther Barrutia, a Basque chemist. Having shown himself already to be a talented practical linguist, he discovered linguistics and graduated in the subject from what was then Central London Polytechnic - while still teaching science in a school. He then worked on his PhD, specialising in Basque, under Professor CE Bazell at London University's School of Oriental and African Studies.
He taught at Liverpool University from 1979 until his department was abolished in 1988 and its members were enthusiastically recruited by Sussex. He was awarded a personal chair by Sussex in 1998. Larry was a dedicated and versatile teacher as well as a researcher, generous with his time to students and to anyone else who might benefit from his knowledge, as witness his participation in the online Ask-a-Linguist service for the general public.
He wrote many books for students and for general readers. These included Language: The Basics (1995), Key Concepts In Language And Linguistics (1999), and the cheerfully illustrated Introducing Linguistics (2000). There were also the comprehensive and rigorous Dictionary Of Comparative And Historical Linguistics (2000), Dictionary Of Phonetics And Phonology (1996) and Dictionary Of Grammatical Terms (1993). In 1997 came the Penguin Guide To Punctuation; a still unpublished guide to netiquette followed, as did the famous Mind The Gaffe (2001) about common errors in written Standard English.
The only things he could not tolerate were pop music - or so he said - and incompetent and non-empirical speculation. He counted among the latter not only most attempts to find cousins for Basque and to prove all human languages related, but also some key aspects of the linguistic arguments of Noam Chomsky which still represents the dominant position in linguis tic theory, especially through the idea that some sort of specifiable universal grammar is hard-wired into the brains of all humans. Larry gave a withering outline of this stand in a Guardian interview with Andrew Brown (June 26 2003), in which the reporter set out why Larry deserved to join that small flock of rare birds, Famous Linguists.
Larry was gregarious, much-befriended, passionately interested in wine, baseball and board-games, devoted to pub quizzes and University Challenge, and passionately uninterested in holidays. Anything that Larry was interested in brought out not just casual engagement but full-blooded devotion.
For the two years of illness he was sustained by the devotion of his wife Jan Lock, to whom he was equally devoted. With ironic cruelty, that illness first robbed him of his speech; then it broke his health in stages while leaving his mental powers intact. We, his colleagues and friends, are deeply grateful that he could be with us intellectually to the end.
Characteristically, his own last academic activity was to try to complete an article for a memorial volume to another scholar. He was still entertaining us with comments on his reading, emailed from his bed, two days before he died. His own festschrift, loaded with contributions from all the leading scholars in his field, including some with whom he profoundly disagreed, will now be a memorial volume. His other memorials are within the many who loved him.
His wife survives him, as do his sister and two brothers.
Robert Lawrence (Larry) Trask, linguist, born November 10 1944 ; died March 27 2004