Johnsonian linguist whose dictionaries read like novels
LARRY TRASK, Professor of Linguistics at Sussex University, was a remarkable and dominant figure in his field.
Outside his specialist area of Basque, he is best known for three brilliant reference works: his Dictionary of Grammatical Terms (1993) was what first made the whole of Linguistics sit up and realise that here was an exceptional talent - exceptional in the clarity not only of his understanding of complicated matters of detail, but also of his concise explanations, which come straight to the point without padding, obfuscation, or parti pris. If you want to understand some aspect of grammar, in almost any language, five minutes with this book will probably enlighten you more effectively than a large specialist tome on the topic.
It would be tempting to attribute the book's success to Trask's exceptional common sense, except for the fact that Trask himself was highly sceptical of the value of common sense. He worked on a basis of ever-expanding knowledge and of scientific method, whereas common sense to him implied a reliance on instinct and hunches rather than on knowledge and experience; and he had a point. After all, linguists on opposing sides of arguments often claim both to appeal to common sense. Trask had no great theory of his own to proselytise, which helped greatly in a field where theories go out of date so soon. That dictionary is probably within easy hand's reach in the office of almost every university linguist.
It was followed by the equally remarkable, full and concise Dictionary of Phonetics and Phonology (1996), which in one way was more impressive, in that Trask had not previously been thought of, or had thought of himself, as a specialist in this field; and, the last of this trio, the Dictionary of Comparative and Historical Linguistics (2000), which is similarly full of simply phrased, intelligent explanations of highly complex topics pertinent to the study of almost any language or language family that a potential user could be interested in. Other ostensibly general works tend to be based on a knowledge mainly of English and of theories based on English; not Larry Trask's.
This last work demonstrated the way that his interests had developed during the 1990s, when he turned himself into a world expert in historical linguistics. His Historical Linguistics (1996) is one important result of this. This field includes the study of the prehistoric languages of the remote past, in which the main analytical weapon comes from reconstructing backwards from the attested languages that have subsequently developed from the ancestor under study; so establishing which existing languages are related in such a way, by sharing an ancestor, is a crucial initial step to subsequent analysis.
Such was his admirably Johnsonian refusal to be impressed by resemblances that are more likely to be due to chance, that he at times managed to annoy specialists of a particular language area while impressing the rest; not by expressing strong opinions of his own so much as by demonstrating the problems with the strong opinions held by others (including what he came to regard as the quasi-religious nonsense of Chomskyan "Universal Grammar").
He became a pervasive presence on the electronic discussion list for Historical Linguistics (HistLing), which already seems much duller without him. He entered those discussions in order to seek enlightenment rather than to exhibit his erudition; as he liked to say, "Historical Linguistics is difficult", and he was happy to ask for and take advice from anybody. This humility largely explains why he knew so much more than most. Here was a scholar with traditional virtues, working cheerfully in the most modern of environments.
But these contributions, so valuable to other linguists, are not likely to be his most lasting influence over all. …