UCL Psychology and Language Sciences


Tributes to Neil Smith (1939 - 2023)

Dedicated to the memory of Neil Smith

Please add your tributes to Neil using this online form and they will be posted below.  If you would like to add any images please email them to a.konradt@ucl.ac.uk.

Many people who knew Neil will be able to share stories about his ability to empathise and show compassion. This was not only evident from the causes that had his lifelong support but also from the way he interacted with those around him, both in the private sphere and at work. I would like to share a recollection that illuminates these qualities. A few years after I joined UCL's (then) Phonetics and Linguistics department as a very young man, my father became terminally ill. Since my dad was in the Netherlands and air travel was not what it is today, commuting to be regularly at his bedside in his final weeks was not really an option. Neil, realising my distress, told me to go home and be with my dad, which I did until his death three weeks later. I have always been very grateful for what Neil did for me then. It touched me deeply and has always stayed with me as an example of how I would like to behave towards others.

Hans van de Koot, Honorary Associate Professor, UCL Linguistics

Neil taught me when I was an undergraduate at UCL (1999-2002), and I went on to work with him for a further 20 years in my subsequent role as language and linguistics editor at Cambridge University Press.  He published a number of books with us, as well as acting on the editorial board of our flagship 'blue' and 'red' monograph and textbook series.

In my undergraduate years I remember him being helpful, supportive, and with a brilliantly wry sense of humour.  He came to our graduation and congratulated each of us personally.  In my professional career he always offered sound and helpful advice on the numerous book projects I worked on with him.  It was always good to catch up with him at conferences and when I re-visited UCL on publishing business. As his editor, we would joke that he used to put red pen on my work and now I was putting it on his! The last time I saw him was at Deirdre Wilson’s retirement event in (I think) 2019.  He was in quite poor health then but we did have a brief catch up and he made a lovely speech for Deirdre.
Neil's passing is a great loss to the world of linguistics, and he'll be very fondly remembered.

Helen Barton, Publisher (Language and Linguistics), Cambridge University Press

I remember Neil from my BA days with the Nupe course. His immense knowledge and ability to teach were amazing and I have always looked up to him as a role model. He will be very sadly missed.

Jonathan White, Dalarna University, Sweden

He was one of the very best teachers I ever had; and thanks to a rather peripatetic education I had quite a few. His lectures were peppered with mention of spiders, chinchillas and other enlivening touches, and he also gave me a good deal of his time and patience (the first no doubt in short supply, the second never) when a personal crisis blew up during my third year at UCL. Perhaps most impressive of all to my student self, he had not only read Lem but was able to tell me the right way to pronounce his first name.

Philip Challinor, BA Linguistics (UCL) 1990

Neil made a huge contribution to Linguistics in Britain though the Linguistics Association of Great Britain. He served two terms as president (1980-86). At that time we had two conferences per year, spring and autumn, so it was a considerable commitment. There were fewer specialist meetings, which meant that the LAGB conferences were for many the main linguistics events of the year. Neil was a gracious leader, introducing guests elegantly (his introduction for Haj Ross was a particular gem), and he felt it his duty to take the “slow spot” of 9am on the first morning.

Greville Corbett (SMG, University of Surrey)

Neil was an amazing teacher and colleague. I first met him when he interviewed me for a place on the Postgraduate Diploma in Linguistics at UCL. He was as positive and welcoming then as always. He was always extremely supportive and encouraging to me and others throughout my time studying and working in the department at UCL and later. He had a way of giving extremely helpful advice briefly but in ways that always made you think afterwards. He was someone you could count on for the best advice in any situation, as head of department, colleague, teacher and friend. We will all miss him.

Billy Clark, Northumbria University

I shall always be grateful for the environment Neil created for students and colleagues at UCL: it was stimulating and wide-ranging; it encouraged debate and friendships - friendships which lasted for many years. I felt very privileged to work with him and Johan Rooryk on Lingua, in spite of the frustrations we shared at that time. I loved the breadth of his knowledge  and interests, and above all, his humanity and sense of humour.  So, absurdly,  one of my most abiding specific memories is our joint recital of the whole of Lynley Dodds' children's book 'Hairy Maclary from Donaldson's Dairy' in his office after an editorial meeting!

Diane Blakemore, Retired Professor of Linguistics, University of Salford (1998-2015)

A beckoning rabbit out of Alice in Wonderland in the window of the former Dillons Bookshop led me to the discovery of Linguistics. The book cover illustrated Professor Smith’s seminal book on Modern Linguistics and back in the early 1980s this made riveting and mind-bending reading. It opened new worlds and possibilities for me, a young Romance Philology graduate who wanted to shake off the diachronic framework and explore the charming concept of language universals. I will be forever grateful for such a meaningful encounter.

Giovanna Ceroni, Linguistics Postgraduate

Neil was very patient with me as a postgraduate who was argumentative and with too many "foci" of attention in London. I suppose he was a bit of an old hippie and allowed each person to develop sui generis. Always reminded me of Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady. I questioned why he referred to his subject as "idiot savant" and he said "because that's what they are called". Different days.

Emilce Rees, UCL alumna (and former UCL staff) 

So sorry to hear of Neil’s passing. He was my personal tutor on the Masters programme in Linguistics (1999 to 2000). He was kind, compassionate and completely approachable. I’ll never forget his wonderful language acquisition lectures, which were utterly enthralling.

Nick Riches, Newcastle University 

Although my PhD research at UCL was on Speech and Natural Language Technology, I was keen to learn more about syntax, and I attended Neil's first year BA lectures on that. His use of Nupe as a case study - a language for which it was very unlikely that any member of the audience would have prior knowledge - to illustrate points was fascinating. Also, his ability to create, and spontaneously say, well-formed sentences containing several levels of "nested" embedded clauses never ceased to amaze me !

Gordon Hunter, Kingston University, UCL PhD student (1999-2003)

Neil was unique: he was a steady support for all of us and for each individually. He was a wise man, above the quarrels of schools and theories, he stood for quality and creativity. But he was also a wonderful human being. An example for all. He created a linguistics home at UCL that is unparalleled: under his gentle guidance we became a family of like minded linguists. He remains with us forever.

Liliane Haegeman, DiaLing, Ghent university

Neil and I enjoyed an extensive collaboration for more than 30 years, through his role as the series editor for numerous syntax books of mine published by CUP, ranging from my textbook on Transformational Grammar in 1988 to my monograph on Relative Clauses in 2019. In my preface to various books, I noted his "enthusiastic support and helpful suggestions" and his "perennially pertinent and perceptive comments", which were "detailed, painstaking, and perspicacious" while managing to be "challenging and good humoured at the same time." He had a very dry sense of humour, and could be witty and incisive at the same time. Somehow, a part of me has died with you, Neil. I will forever be grateful to you.

Andrew Radford, Emeritus Professor, University of Essex

Professor Smith represented for me the best an academic can offer: knowledgeable, thought-provoking, humane and witty. I will be forever grateful to him.

Katia Lancellotti, former student

A beautiful mind, a kind soul, the embodiment of ethos, Neil was always there - with a smile on his face - in his office at Gordon Square for our regular Thursday morning guidance meeting for the duration of my PhD studies. Always inspiring, always supportive, he is greatly missed; for he has helped so many to shape their personalities and their lives. Neil will forever be one of the rarest lights in my life.

Georgia Panitsa (Cambridge University Press and Assessment)

Neil was the PI on the teaching Christopher BSL project (along with Ianthi Tsimpli and Bencie Woll). I was very lucky to be the post-doc and I got to know Neil over the three years in many meetings, trips to visit Christopher and long chats in his office in GS. Neil made me laugh, realise new ideas, scared, be in awe and inspired when we were together. I always remember his passion for research and teaching, his never swaying critical regard and his humility. Thanks Neil.

Gary Morgan UOC, Barcelona

Neil was extraordinary. He accepted me as a foreign student who made some dreadfully ignorant comments during her interview, but he helped wherever he could whilst trying to master both English, essay writing and so on. He was an inspiration.

Marian Van Der Heijde, Joint honours English and Linguistics