Randolph Quirk

This chapter is based on an interview with Keith Brown in February 2001

Like everyone else, I suppose, I'm very much a product of my background and childhood, the child being father of the man, as Wordsworth said. I was brought up in a farming family to be obsessively enamoured of hard work and to be just as obsessively sceptical about orthodoxies, religious or political. So in retrospect it's easy for me to see why I became such a restless, free-ranging eclectic as I have been.

You see, my family was a mixture of catholic and protestant, of anglican and methodist, in an island community where self-consciously Manx values cohabited uneasily with increasingly dominant English values. Indeed, if I'm an eclectic pluralist, it may simply be that the Manx in general are. Although we tend to be a bit equivocal and semi-detached about national identity, we're very conscious of our Celtic roots: we share St Patrick with Ireland and we have the remnants of a Celtic language that is close to being intercomprehensible with Irish. I say "remnants" because, although the rudiments are now taught in school, when I was a child there were already very few fully competent Manx speakers, and most of us (though living in Manx named Ballabrooie or Cronk y Voddy) only used Manx for the odd greeting or proverb or our very own euphemism for "loo", tthai beg "little house". But we were conscious too of Scandinavian roots. We sang of King Orry and bowed to St Olave; we proudly gawped at our quite splendid Viking-Age crosses with their runic inscriptions -- some of the best in Kirk Michael only a couple of miles from our family farm which itself bears a Scandinavian name, Lambfell. The Manx parliament has retained its Scandinavian name for a thousand years: Tynwald, cognate in form and function with Iceland's Thingvoll. In the middle ages, our bishop was appointed from Trondheim and his title still recalls that his domain once included "Sodor", which derives from the Scandinavian name for the Hebrides.

You may well be wondering, but are too courteous to ask: What has all this to do with my academic career? Well, in addition to underlining this nonconforming eclecticism of mine, it may help to explain my interest in language, history, and language history. So when I had reluctantly abandoned school science for the "arts", I came to UCL, eventually settling for the subject "English" because of the historical and linguistic bias in the curriculum: Gothic, some Old Saxon and Old High German, a lot of Old Norse, and even more Anglo-Saxon: Germanic philology, history of language and the writing of language: palaeography from runes to court hand.

Not that the course of my true love for this English degree ran smoothly to begin with. I diverted some of my energies into the lively politics of the time, and a lot into music - especially into playing in a dance band, not least to fund nights out with girls. The war had made my bit of UCL re-locate in Aberystwyth and I was further diverted into dabbling in the Welsh spoken around me, tickled that Cronk y Voddy's tthai beg was Aber's ty bach. I still love singing those minor-key Welsh hymns -- in Welsh. But most seriously I was diverted from the English degree by five years in RAF's bomber command where I became so deeply interested in explosives that I started to do an external degree in chemistry through evening classes at what is now the University of Hull.

But with demobilisation in 1945 I suddenly felt middle-aged and so I soberly resumed my UCL degree with unexpected dedication, enlivened by new excitements. With the College back in Bloomsbury, I discovered I could tap into phonetics with Daniel Jones and (just down the road at SOAS) into a subject then just daring to speak its name ("linguistics") with J.R.Firth. By the time I'd got my BA, I was hooked on the idea of research. Ah, but in what? It's hard now to explain to young graduates how lucky we were in austerity England, bombarded with tempting career offers. I was invited to take up a research fellowship in Cambridge to work on Old Norse (and in fact I did subsequently do some bits of work on Hrafnkelssaga and a student edition of Gunnlaugssaga with P.G.Foote in 1963). But I was counter-attracted by the offer (offer: no ad, no application, no referees) of a junior lectureship at UCL itself. Without so much as an hour's teacher training, I happily charged into undergraduate classes on medieval literature, history of the language, OE, Old Norse, and anything else the powers thought I had more time to do than they. And then there was the exciting challenge of embarking on research -- a matter far more important in the eyes of the said powers.

At that time, there was much controversy over a now yawn-inducing issue in old Germanic philology: what Grimm had called Brechung. Were the vowels in OE words like heard "hard" or feoh "cattle" really diphthongs or just simple vowels plus diacritics indicating consonant "colour"? With great gusto, I took on Fernand Mosse of Paris and Marjorie Daunt of Birkbeck, with the enthusiastic approval of my supervisor, A.H.Smith. Supervision was often rather nominal in those days, and so it was with Hugh Smith, but it was always a privilege to have ready access to such an extraordinary polymath: big in toponymics, of course, but big also in ultra-violet photography, horology, and typography, to name just a few of his interests. My research involved learning some Old Irish where the vowel graphemics showed apparent similarities (and where the stories from the Tain held -- like the Norse sagas -- a literary interest for me as well). My work also involved learning some Danish and Swedish for a lot of the relevant published research.. So it was that I came to sit at the feet of Elias Bredsdorff, the Hans Andersen scholar, then lektor in Danish at UCL, who could sometimes be coaxed into telling of his exploits in war-time Denmark when he was prominent on the SS wanted list. Despite such temptations to dawdle and dabble, the thesis got finished but (astonishingly as it may now seem) the controversy rumbled on, joined by up-and-coming Bob Stockwell on the one side and Sherman Kuhn stoutly joining forces with me on the other.

Meanwhile, teaching students OE was bringing home to me how little Germanic philology helped them and how much syntax and lexicology would. So for my PhD, I switched to syntax, incurring some displeasure among the powers for whom sticking to one's scholarly last was a prime virtue and my field was phonology, was it not? But in one quarter the switch was welcomed. A book based on my thesis was published by Yale University Press in 1954 (The Concessive Relation in Old English Poetry) just whenC.L.Wrenn at Pembroke, Oxford was planning to write an OE grammar. Because such grammars traditionally covered only phonology and morphology, he roped me in to help write a different kind of text book, replete with a fairly full treatment of syntax as well as word-formation. An Old English Grammar was duly published by Methuen in 1955.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Before that collaboration with Wrenn, I had another life-changing stroke of luck. In 1951, I was awarded what is now called a Harkness Fellowship that took me to Bernard Bloch, Helge Kokeritz, and Yale. I rejoiced in attending Bloch's classes as a "post-doc" but revelled also in the proximity (given a splendid car and the Merritt Parkway) of Columbia and Cabell Greet to the south and of Brown (Freeman Twaddell) and Harvard (F.P.Magoun, Joseph Watmough, et many al, but especially Roman Jabobson) to the north. I was made to feel very welcome, and Bloch in particular (in Bloomfield's old chair) tried to recruit me into Bloch-Trager structuralism and teased me about Firth -- though I told him he hadn't recruited me either. Now, actually , the powers-that-were at UCL "sent" me (as they saw it) to America so that I could work lexicologically upon the great UCL Piers Plowman project that had been begun decades earlier by the then Quain Professor, R.W.Chambers. So, after a semester at Yale, I dutifully repaired to Ann Arbor where I was generously given a desk in the great Michigan project, the Middle English Dictionary, headed by Hans Kurath and Sherman Kuhn.

I enjoyed trawling through the MED's voluminous files and managed to do a few things related to my Langland mission. I was also briefly tempted back into OE phonology to do a couple of papers with Kuhn (Language 29.143-156 and 31.390-401). But of far greater long-term importance for me was the close contact I came to have with the stars of Ann Arbor linguistics: Charles Fries, Albert Marckwardt, Ken Pike, Herbert Penzl, Raven McDavid, for example. I became more acquainted with the historical and contemporary relations between American and British English and (especially through seminars hospitably organised chez Fries) with modes of working empirically on the syntax of spoken language. Fries had of course already done innovative work on unedited manuscript English (soldiers' letters, for example). But now the new electronic recording had enabled him to do even more innovative work on unedited spoken English, and whatever its obvious deficiencies his book on The Structure of English (1952) gave me a huge buzz. From then on, I've never been without a tape recorder -- and never above using a hidden mike.

By travelling round the US, I was able to establish working friendships with many other scholars such as Jim Sledd and Archie Hill. But I was also able to witness the darker side of academia: LSA meetings reduced to chaos, as (surely pre-planned) vilification was hurled at senior figures like Adelaide Hahn by gangs of young turks peddling their current brand of structuralism against those they saw as stuck in the mind set of the Junggrammatiker. Not a few of these same young turks were within a couple of years to desert Trager and Hill to become just as fanatical about TG, and in 1962 I was dismayed to see just such fascistic intolerance at the International Congress in Cambridge, Mass, when it was scholars like Bloch who were disgracefully shouted down.

Not long after my return from the US in 1952, I moved to Durham, in no small part to get away from an increasingly bibulous departmental culture which I was not alone in finding a bit oppressive. The Durham department, headed by the critic Clifford Leech, was excellent but small, and everyone was expected to teach more or less everything. There weren't many linguists around, but there were a few very active ones such as Neville Collinge in Classics, while over in Newcastle there was my close friend, Barbara Strang. The tiny "language side" that I was appointed to take over in Durham had been eminent in the cultural and textual history of Anglo-Saxon England, but while doing my amateurish best to keep this tradition alive I devoted myself more to convincing students and colleagues that a linguistic approach could contribute valuable insights to the study of Shakespeare, Swift, Wordsworth, Dickens, and all stations to T.S.Eliot and beyond. And I started seriously examining the grammar of present-day and especially spoken English. That included the speech of my children. One of them regularly (in more senses than one) spoke of "a-r-apple", rightly divining that sandhi [r] was of greater phonotactic currency than sandhi [n] (though he didn't actually say so); and both lads contributed mightily to the series of broadcast lectures that eventually grew into The use of English (Longman). I made frequent weekend trips to London where the BBC had kindly given me not just a desk but free access to all their tapes and transcriptions of the spontaneous speech in numerous discussion programmes. I had ideas for harnessing the then vast and clumsy computer in the task of sorting out the conditions under which linguistic variants occurred, and I took a programming course with Ewan Page (later Vice-Chancellor of Reading) in his Newcastle department. The University of Durham provided modest seed money for such things as primitive recording and analysis facilities, and I was soon well on the way to devising a long-term project for the description of English syntax ("The Survey of English Usage"), described in TPS 1960, pp 40-61. This had already received some welcome funding from a Danish publisher, from CUP, OUP, and above all from Longman by the time I moved back to UCL in 1960, bringing with me the infant Survey and a research assistant.

The infant thrived and many, many people contributed to its nurture. I got unstinting support from UCL itself, the department and successive Provosts (Ifor Evans, Noel Annan, James Lighthill); from the British Council, who funded postgraduate and more senior scholars to work with me over the years (Florent Aarts, Wolf-Dietrich Bald, Jan Firbas, for example); from the Ford Foundation who brought to UCL such scholars as Jim Sledd and Nelson Francis; from the research councils and the great charities like Leverhulme (during one of the Survey's financial crises, Keith Murray responded to a week-end call with what amounted to a year's bail-out); from Longman (thanks especially to John Chapple and subsequently Tim Rix, the latter setting up a generous Longman Fellowship that funded post-docs from the third world so they could use the Survey materials in the production of English teaching materials back home).

Among the researchers thus funded, several were key to the day-to-day development of the project. These have been recorded in annual reports and in prefaces to Survey publications (full lists available from UCL), but one or two should be recalled here. Jan Rusiecki (and later Robert Ilson) took prime responsibility for what we called the "Work-book", specifying the criteria for every single linguistic and taxonomic decision as the corpus was analysed. David Crystal became the lead partner in devising the scheme by which the multiple systems of prosodic and paralinguistic features of speech were recognised, categorised, and transcribed by experts such as Janet Whitcut. Jan Svartvik and Henry Carvell led the way in computational analyses, with many nocturnal hours on off-peak access to the vast Atlas machine in Gordon Square. Geoffrey Leech's leadership was crucial in shaping A Grammar of Contemporary English (Longman 1972), as also its successor of 1985 - another of the many works in which I have indulged my enjoyment of collaborative writing. Sidney Greenbaum and Ruth Kempson devoted a good deal of time and ingenuity to psycholinguistic techniques of elicitation (e.g. Elicitation Experiments in English, Longman 1970; Language 47.548ff) -- an aspect of the Survey that I have always (and already in the Philological Society paper of 1959) seen as constituting an at least equal partnership with corpus analysis.

All this has been acknowledged before and is, so to say, in the public domain. Less well known has been my dependence for day-to-day spade work on a host of devoted volunteers led by Rene Quinault (ex-BBC) and comprising such loyal friends as Oonagh Sayce, Grace Stewart (wife of the University Principal), Jocelyn Goodman, Audrey Morris, and many many others. It was in no small part through their efforts that the Survey rapidly became (and increasingly continues to be) a valued resource for researchers from near (e.g. Frank Palmer) or far (e.g. Yoshihiko Ikegami), and the list of Survey-dependant publications grows more impressive by the year.

And of course the Survey has drawn on scholarship far beyond modern Bloomsbury in time and space. From continental giants of the past such as Jespersen and Kruisinga. From more recent continental giants in the Prague School of Mathesius, Trnka and Vachek -- even to some extent from the Danish glossematics of Hjelmslev. From the French such as Martinet and Adamczewski, and from Canadians as diverse as Wally Avis and W.H.Hirtle. Most obviously perhaps from Bloomfieldian structuralism whether of Fries's brand or Pike's or Trager's or Hockett's, and from a succession of generative theories articulated by Chomsky et al. The nice thing about eclecticism is, as its etymology proclaims, that you can choose freely and widely what you need for a particular purpose, without boxing yourself into any single (and doubtless inevitably flawed) theoretical position. It's a matter of taste and personal intellectual bent, I suppose, but I have always found it liberating to be unconstrained by the very idea of an orthodoxy. In this, nothing would please me better than to be compared with a linguist friend I have particularly admired, Dwight Bolinger.

The Survey took up the bulk of my time in the sixties and seventies, but in addition I worked for the British Council, not only on committees but on report-writing after inspection and lecture visits to Russia, China, Korea, Japan, and a swathe of Commonwealth countries such as India, Ghana, and Nigeria. In the only spell of sabbatical leave I ever had (1975-6), I took in Iraq and had a memorable few months in New Zealand. And I like to think I revolutionised linguistics at UCL by getting money together (thanks again to Tim Rix and Longman) and doing a spot of energetic head-hunting in Edinburgh. Thus it was that our English Department added a linguistics section headed by Michael Halliday and including Bob Dixon, Rodney Huddleston, Dick Hudson, and Eugene Winter. In due course, this section moved out of English and ultimately joined Phonetics to become the Department of Phonetics and Linguistics. Oh yes, and there's another thing worth mentioning among the myriad of odds and ends I busied myself with during these years: I helped Tim Rix launch Longman into producing dictionaries -- well, re-launch, really, since the Longman family were already on Johnson's title-page in 1755.

I was drawn outside academia on a couple of occasions to do jobs for Whitehall, for example to serve on a committee on school examinations (the Lockwood Report was published by HMSO in 1964), and once to chair a committee of inquiry into the speech therapy services, producing a report in 1972 (also HMSO) which I'm delighted to say totally revolutionised the profession, not least by making it an all-graduate career. But I wish I had done more, especially in relation to the teaching of English in schools. This was sharply brought home to me, oddly enough, when I was appointed Vice-Chancellor of London University (another job, like my very first, that I didn't apply for and was in this instance very reluctant to accept). After years of growth, the universities faced a sudden cut-back: in London's case, I had to implement a funding reduction of 17% spread over three years. It was draconian, but in one of my chilly confrontations in the Senate House with the then Secretary of State, Sir Keith Joseph, he told me bluntly that if his department had the kind of money I was seeking, he wouldn't give it to me but to where it was infinitely more badly needed. "When were you last in any of our inner city comprehensives?" he asked. Well, the following week he took me to one for a couple of hours, and the scales fell from my eyes. In all my years as a university teacher, I had of course known that we were selecting our students (little more than 10% of the age group at that time) from obviously "good" schools: the quality of intake was high, year after year. I was ashamed to realise that I had never bothered to find out what sort of quality education the majority of schools meted out.

Well, ever since, I've been trying to make restitution in whatever way I could. When I was President of the British Academy, I worked (as in so much these days, along with my wife, Gabriele Stein) at radically improving the new National Curriculum so as to ensure a better schooling "for the many" as New Labour would say, without disrupting the kind of education expected of the growing numbers of students coming into the universities. We had some success in eradicating the emphasis on trivial aspects of grammar (such as the split infinitive) and introducing more serious attention to vocabulary, in the course of exposing the misplaced disdain for Standard English affected by many in the educational establishment.

Since entering the House of Lords, I have still further extended my interest in general educational issues to take up the disgracefully neglected matter of education and training for prisoners and "young offenders" - the vast majority of them male and (even compared with our grossly under-educated population at large) disproportionately illiterate. In this respect too, I'm trying to make up for a happy, lucky life in the charmed circles of academia, though in another respect it's a return to an interest I indulged when I was in Durham. The Chief Constable was Alec Muir, brother of another friend Kenneth, who was Professor of English in Liverpool. Alec persuaded me to give a course of lectures for lifers and the like in Durham Gaol. I've never had more attentive and appreciative audiences!

Keith, I didn't want to do a piece for this volume, as you well know. In a letter on 30 June 2000, I wrote: "I have become increasingly convinced that my own personal history would not be worth reading and that, by writing one, I would be implying that I thought it was."

That remains my strongly held view and the grounds for continuing misgivings. But my letter to you went on: "In your charity, you may well be tempted to reject my (I assure you) well-founded modesty, but I have to tell you firmly that my mind is made up."

Well, "in your charity" you would never have dreamed of rejecting my views; instead, you persuaded me to let you use precious time of your own to interview me. This is the result, and I can now admit that I'm glad and grateful that you did. You actually made me enjoy the unwonted experience of delving into (sometimes unwanted) memories of a pretty mixed personal past. If this were a self-assessment exercise, I'd give myself a beta minus. Beta for undoubted hard work and a reasonable quota of good intentions. Minus for spreading myself, my writing, my interests, and my curiosity very much too widely; and hence for doing far too little at far too much.


Fries, C.C. 1952. The Structure of English. New York: Harcourt Brace.

Quirk, R. 1951. 'Textual notes on Hrafnkelssaga'. London Medieval Studies 2 1-31.

Quirk R. & Sherman M Kuhn 1953. 'Some recent interpretations of Old English digraph spellings'. Language 29. 143-156

Quirk, R. 1954. The Concessive Relation in Old English Poetry New Haven, Yale University Press

Quirk R. & Wrenn C.L., 1955. An Old English Grammar. London: Methuen.

Quirk R. & Sherman M Kuhn 1955. 'The Old English digraphs: a reply'. Language 31.390-401.

Quirk R. & Foote, P.G. 1957. The sage of Gunnlaug Serpent-Tongue. London: Nelson.

Quirk R 1962. The use of English. London: Longman.

Quirk R 1960. 'Towards a description of English Usage'. TPhS 1960. 40-61

Quirk R., & Greenbaum, S. 1970. Elicitation Experiments in English: linguistic studies in use and attitude. London: Longman.

Quirk R. & Kempson, Ruth 1971. 'Controlled activation of latent contrast' Language 47.548 - 572.

Quirk R., Greenbaum, S., Leech, G. & Svartvik, J. 1972. A Grammar of Contemporary English. London: Longman.

Quirk R., Greenbaum, S., Leech, G. & Svartvik, J. 1985. A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. London: Longman.

Biographical notes

FBA 1975, CBE 1976, Kt 1985, cr. Baron (Life Peer) 1994. b.1920; m.1st Jean 1946 (2 sons), 2nd Gabriele 1984; Education Cronk y Voddy School and Douglas High School, Isle of Man; University College London 1939-40, 1945-47, MA, PhD, D.Lit; Commonwealth Fund (now Harkness) Fellow, Yale and Michigan. Career: 1951-52. Lecturer in English, UCL, 1947-54; Reader, University of Durham, 1954-58; Professor, 1958-60; Professor, UCL, 1960-68; Quain Professor, 1968-81; Vice-Chancellor, University of London, 1981-85; President, British Academy, 1985-89. Director, Survey of English Usage, 1959-83; Senate, University of London, 1970-85; Court, 1972-85. Governor, Guisborough Grammar School, Cleveland 1957-60; Chairman, Inquiry into Speech Therapy Services, 1969-72. BBC Archives Committee, 1975-81;Governor, British Institute of Recorded Sound, 1976-80. Chairman, A.S.Hornby Educational Trust, 1979-93. Governor, Richmond College since 1981. Governor, English-Speaking Union, 1980-85. President, Institute of Linguists, 1982-85. Vice-Chairman, English Language Council, E-SU, since 1985. Board of the British Council, 1983-91. Chairman, British Library Advisory Committee, 1984-97. Chairman, Anglo-Spanish Foundation, 1983-85. Council of RADA since 1985. Trustee, City Technology Colleges, 1986-98. Vice-President, Foundation for Science and Technology, 1986-90. President, College of Speech Therapists, 1987-91. Trustee, Wolfson Foundation since 1987. Governor, American School in London, 1987-89. Royal Commissioner, 1851 Exhibition, 1987-95. President, North of England Education Conference, 1989. House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology since 1998. Elected member of Academia Europaea, Royal Belgian Academy of Sciences, Royal Swedish Academy, Finnish Academy of Sciences, American Academy of Arts and Sciences; hon.Bencher, Gray's Inn; hon. FCST; hon. FIL; Fellow of UCL, KCL, QMW, Goldsmiths', Royal Holloway, Imperial. Honorary doctorates: Aston, Bar Ilan, Bath, Brunel, Copenhagen, Durham, Essex, Glasgow, Helsinki, Leicester, Liege, London, Lund, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Nijmegen, Open, Paris, Poznan, Prague, Reading, Richmond, Salford, Sheffield, Southern California, Uppsala, Westminster. Major Publications: The Concessive Relation in Old English Poetry 1954; Studies in Communication (with A.J. Ayer and others) 1955; An Old English Grammar (with C.L.Wrenn) 1955, enlarged edn (with S.E.Deskis) 1994; Charles Dickens and appropriate language 1959; The Teaching of English (with A.H. Smith) 1959, revised edn. 1964; The Study of the Mother Tongue 1961; The Use of English (with supplements by A.C. Gimson and J. Warburg) 1962, enlarged edn. 1968; Systems of Prosodic and Paralinguistic Features in English (with D Crystal) 1964; A Common Language (with A.H. Marckwardt) 1964; Investigating Linguistic Acceptability (with J Svartvik) 1966; Essays on the English Language- Medieval and Modern 1968; Elicitation Experiments in English (with S Greenbaum) 1970; A Grammar of Contemporary English (with S Greenbaum, G Leech, J Svartvik) 1972; The English Language and Images of Matter 1972; A University Grammar of English (with S. Greenbaum) 1973; The Linguist and the English Language 1974; Old English Literature: a practical introduction (with V Adams, D Davy) 1975; A Corpus of English Conversation (with J Svartvik) 1980; Style and Communication in the English Language 1982; A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (with S Greenbaum, G Leech, J Svartvik) 1985; English in the World (with H Widdowson) 1985; Words at Work: lectures on textual structure 1986; English in Use (with G Stein) 1990; A Student's Grammar of the English Language (with S Greenbaum) 1990; An Introduction to Standard English (with G Stein) 1993; Grammatical and Lexical Variance in English 1995.

┬ęThe Philological Society and Randolph Quirk. Edited extract from Linguistics in Britain: Personal Histories. Edited by: Keith Brown and Vivien Law. Reprinted by kind permission of PhilSoc, the editors and the author.

This page last modified 12 June, 2013 by Survey Web Administrator.