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A tribute to Randolph Quirk

12 January 2018

It is with great sadness that we announce the death of Randolph Quirk, Founder of the Survey of English Usage.

As a professor at UCL for more than 20 years, he revolutionised and shaped the study of English linguistics, becoming one of the most important figures of the 20th century in the subject.

Lord Randoplh Quirk

Every student and academic who studies the English language will be aware of and will have been influenced by his seminal work into the written and spoken word.

He was also influential in shaping higher education in London as Vice-Chancellor of the University of London in the austerity years of the 1980s, played a key part in important public inquiries and committees and, in later life, was a passionate campaigner to improve the quality of education and training for the less fortunate.

UCL President & Provost Professor Michael Arthur, said: “We are sad to lose one of the great UCL academics, a man who shaped and inspired his discipline of English linguistics. He was also a passionate defender of education and played an important role in defining and securing the future of the University of London at a difficult time. He will be missed and our sympathies go to his widow and family.”

Professor David Crystal, who worked with him on one of his most influential projects, the Survey of English Usage, said: “Randolph Quirk defined English language studies for the second half of the 20th century. I don’t know of any English Language scholar who doesn’t owe a debt to him because of everything he did. He has had that unparalleled influence.”

Professor Bas Aarts, professor of English linguistics at UCL and current Director of the Survey of English Usage, said: “He was a towering intellect in the field. Anyone working in language studies will know his name.”

Having been a junior lecturer at UCL until 1952, he returned as professor in 1960 before becoming Quain Professor of English Language and Literature in 1968, a post he held until 1981. He was responsible for two of the most important projects in English linguistics. One is the Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, which is a seminal book on the subject, and the other is the creation of the Survey of English Usage in 1959.

The Survey was the first to sample written and spoken British English, between 1955 and 1985. A corpus of 1m analysed words, comprising 200 texts each of 5,000 words, it included dialogue and monologue, and written material intended for both reading and reading aloud. 

The Survey was a crucial source of input to the Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, the first major study of the real use of English in all its spoken and written domains.

He was Vice-Chancellor of the University of London from 1981-1985, and was president of the British Academy from 1985 to 1989. He was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1976 and was knighted in 1985. He became a life peer as Baron Quirk of Bloomsbury (the location for the campus of UCL) in the London Borough of Camden in July 1994 and was an active member of the Lords into his 90s.

Reviewing his life and achievements in 2001, he recalled his early upbringing on the family farm in the Isle of Man and how it made him “obsessively enamoured of hard work and to be just as obsessively sceptical about orthodoxies, religious or political.”

This, he declared, was what made him such a “restless, free-ranging eclectic,” something that proved a perfect fit for the radical, free-thinking liberalism of UCL. He noted that his Manx background, with its Celtic roots and Scandanavian influences, could also help explain his interest in language, history and language history.

Professor John Mullan, UCL’s Lord Northcliffe Chair of Modern English Literature, said: “For all the years after his retirement, he continued to be an active presence in UCL and the English Department, for both of which he kept a strong affection. Many like myself who arrived after his official departure came to know him and to be stimulated by our exchanges with him.”

He leaves a widow, Lady Quirk, nee Gabriele Stein, a German linguist and his second wife, and two sons by his first marriage, Eric and Robin.