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A tribute to the godfather of descriptive grammar

NHKテレビ英語会話Ⅱ Sir Randolph Quirk

The last Gazette interview with the descriptive grammarian Randolph Quirk, who died recently aged 97, took place in the House of Lords tearoom.

We were discussing the friendship between Quirk and A.S. Hornby, founder of the Oxford Advanced Learners’ Dictionary.

Lord Quirk of Bloomsbury, to give him his full title, was in fine fettle.

‘Remember, at this time transformational grammar was being taught in English language classes,’ he complained. ‘Even Chomsky thought that was b****s.’
Randolph, as he always insisted on being called, was at least as important to English language teaching as Hornby or even Chomsky.

If we know anything about spoken grammar, it is because Randolph insisted it was in the Survey of English Usage.

If we use modern terms for parts of speech like determiners and quantifiers, it is because he insisted on throwing out the old Latin formulations.

With Greenbaum, Leech and Svartvic, he produced the Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, the first complete descriptive grammar of English.

We owe him so much. Always a friend to the Gazette, ready to dispense wit and wisdom, he appeared on our front page a dozen times.

The man was a headline walking. Take, for example, the time he complained that, following his campaign to improve conditions in English schools, all the government had done was send a visiting party of MPs to look at schools in New York.

‘New York?’ he roared. ‘What can we learn from New York? They are worse than we are. They should just get on a train and go to Scotland.’

Or take the time he admitted, in a two-page interview, that he funded his undergraduate studies by playing the jazz clarinet.

He was once asked his views on the disappearance of the Manx language.

This native Manxman whose own father was one of the last native speakers of the language, said, ‘Completely useless language. I’m glad it’s gone.’

Yet this was a man who, when he was stationed in Wales during the war, learned Welsh so he could sing in a choir.

A man who taught Anglo Saxon and studied Ancient Norse.

And he was someone who loved the Isle of Man, where he was born on a farm his family had worked for 300 years, although he seldom visited it.

When he heard that a group of Manx businessmen, including my father, were campaigning to open a language school, he flew home with me to lobby for it.

Another front page for the Gazette.

I will always remember a speech David Crystal gave at the British Library in honour of Randolph Quirk, his old boss at the Survey of English Usage.

‘He is Obi-wan Kinobi,’ said Crystal, ‘and we were just his Jedi.’ Rest in peace Randolph Quirk, grammarian, Vice Chancellor, life peer, jazz musician, Manxman.

The force was with you.

Pic courtesy: NHKテレビ英語会話Ⅱ