Larry Trask

Frans Plank Frans.Plank at UNI-KONSTANZ.DE
Mon Apr 5 08:17:30 UTC 2004

...  needless to add, a sad loss also for typology [FP]

R.L. (Larry) Trask, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Sussex,
died on 27 March 2004 at the age of 59, from motor neurone disease.  He was
a leading expert on Basque linguistics. 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. In 2001 he was awarded a 2-year Leverhulme research
fellowship to write a Basque etymological dictionary, though it was within
months of taking up this fellowship that he first fell ill. A year was to
pass before the illness was correctly diagnosed.

Larry Trask was also well known as a writer of textbooks, reference works
and works on linguistics and language for the general reader: A dictionary
of grammatical terms in linguistics (1993), Language change (1994),
Language: the basics (1995), A dictionary of phonetics and phonology
(1996), Historical linguistics (1996), A student's dictionary of language
and linguistics (1997), The Penguin guide to punctuation (1997), Key
concepts in language and linguistics (1999), Dictionary of historical and
comparative linguistics (2000), Introducing linguistics (2000), The Penguin
dictionary of English grammar (2000), Mind the gaffe: the Penguin guide to
common errors in English (2001). In all of these Larry displayed his
prodigious talent for explaining often complex concepts clearly and
directly, with well chosen examples, and with wit and humour. The
dictionaries, in particular, are major works of linguistic lexicography,
tracing terms back to their first users, and commenting authoritatively on
varying definitions and usages.

Larry was born on 10 November 1944, and was brought up in Olean,
Cattaraugus County, New York State. He took degrees in chemistry at
Rensselaer Polytechnic (BSc)  and Brandeis University (MA), and began a PhD
in chemistry before joining the US Peace Corps. He spent a year or so
teaching chemistry in Turkey and beginning to learn Turkish, but left
Turkey before the end of his contract when the political situation made it
unsafe for Americans to remain. He planned to spend only two weeks in
London on his way back to the US, but, in the event, stayed on in England.
While continuing to teach chemistry he took a diploma in linguistics in the
Polytechnic of Central London, and enrolled in the mid 1970s on a new PhD,
specializing in Basque syntax, under C.E. Bazell at the School of Oriental
and African Studies. In 1979 he got a post in linguistics at the University
of Liverpool, where I was already teaching; Larry's arrival doubled the
size of the department.

In his first years as a full-time linguist Larry made his greatest
impression as a teacher. He was a popular, engaging, and energetic
lecturer. Dissatisfied with the syntax textbooks then available, and
unsympathetic to the Chomskyan orthodoxy of the time, he wrote his own
textbook of syntax (unpublished), which he continued to use after moving to
Sussex. A glossary of syntactic terminology that he compiled to help
students became the basis of his later Dictionary of Grammatical Terms. In
1988, on the closure of the Liverpool linguistics department, he and I
moved to the University of Sussex. At Sussex Larry continued to teach a
variety of linguistics courses, and to pursue his research on Basque,
focusing more on its diachronic aspects. The success of his first two books
allowed others, and perhaps Larry himself, to fully appreciate his gift as
a writer for a relatively non-specialist public, and unleashed the torrent
of books he produced in the last decade.

In recent years Larry developed new interests, firstly in the theory of
historical and comparative linguistics, which led to his published
critiques of 'long-range comparison' and to his co-editorship, with Colin
Renfrew and April McMahon of the two-volume collection Time Depth in
Historical Linguistics (2000). He also developed a deep interest in the
origin and evolution of language, and is to our loss that he was not able
to persuade a publisher to take on the book that he sketched out on this

As J.I. Hualde remarks on LINGUIST list 15-1005, ' Perhaps because of his
background in the "hard
sciences" [Larry] 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.'

J.I. Hualde and J. Lakarra are preparing a Festschrift to honour Larry
Trask's contribution to linguistics. This was originally to have been kept
secret from him till it was presented, but he was told of it some weeks ago
when it became evident that he might not live till it was completed. It
will now be a memorial volume. Ironically one of Larry's last tasks was to
finalize a paper he had prepared for a Festschrift for another scholar who
had died before the collection was completed.

Outside science and linguistics, Larry was passionately interested in
baseball and board games, devoted to pub quizzes and University Challenge;
in fact, anything that Larry was interested in brought out not just casual
engagement, but but full-blooded devotion.

Larry's illness cruelly robbed him of the power of speech, and increasingly
sapped his strength. He bore all this with courage and cheerfulness,
supported by the devotion of his second wife, Jan Lock, whom he had married
in 1999.

Max Wheeler
University of Sussex

Department of Linguistics & English Language
University of Sussex
Brighton BN1 9QN
phone: +44 (0)1273 678975
email: M.W.Wheeler at

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