Henry Leeming

Philologist and Slavonic scholar
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The Independent Online

Henry Leeming, Slavist: born Manchester 6 January 1920; Lecturer, then Reader, in Comparative Slavonic Philology, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, London University 1955-85 (Reader Emeritus); married 1966 Monika Didiakin (one daughter); died London 25 December 2004.

Henry Leeming was a philologist who placed the genetic relationship between the various Slavonic languages at the centre of his life's work.

His great knowledge of language and love of literature led to an extraordinary breadth of interests and achievements, ranging from translations into English from Polish and Slovenian to studies of the polyphonic work of James Joyce. Nowadays this approach to language is a relative rarity. But it formed the basis of Leeming's long and fruitful career, most of which he spent at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at London University.

Born in Manchester in 1920, Harry Leeming was the eldest of three children, one of whom, his sister Elizabeth, died at the age of five. Three of his grandparents were Irish. After a good grounding in Greek and Latin at St Bede's, he began studying Classics at Manchester University, fully expecting to spend his life teaching in a local school.

But his degree course was interrupted by military service, which brought him, as liaison officer and teacher of English in the years 1943-46, into close contact with the Polish Second Corps in Palestine, Egypt and Italy, and gave him the opportunity of learning the Polish language, whose non- English sounding consonant clusters intrigued him greatly.

After being demobbed he returned to Manchester and completed his BA in Classics in 1949 before moving to the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, where he remained for the rest of his career, first as a postgraduate student and later as Lecturer and Reader in Comparative Slavonic Philology.

In 1957 he visited Poland for the first time and met a number of fellow Slavists, including his future wife, Monika Didiakin. She helped and encouraged his researches in comparative Slavonic lexicology, and particularly in Polish influences on the vocabulary of the East Slavonic languages - the subject of his doctoral thesis. Together they prepared for publication by the Slovene Academy of Sciences and Arts the correspondence of Emil Korytko, a Polish ethnographer exiled to Ljubljana in 1836-38.

He continued to teach and do research at SSEES until his retirement. He was also a visiting teacher at both Oxford and Cambridge universities, and spent a year's sabbatical at the Australian National University, Canberra. His publications cover an impressive range of languages, including Russian, Polish, Slovene, Czech, Bulgarian, Ukrainian, Old Church Slavonic, Greek, Latin, Italian, German and Iranian.

He was encouraged to work on Slovene by Professor Janko Lavrin, of Nottingham University (himself a Slovene), and one of Leeming's Slovene projects was a 1993 re-working of Anton Grad's Slovene-English Dictionary, first published in 1965. His Slovene publishers realised that they had found their man, and they more or less chained Leeming to a desk in a hotel room in Ljubljana for four months until he had finished it.

Harry Leeming had tremendous sensitivity for language and several of his translations were read by Prunella Scales and Timothy West at an "Evening of Slovene Poetry and Prose" at the UnderGlobe, at the Globe Theatre, in May 2004, to celebrate Slovenia's accession to the EU. Both actors commented afterwards how easy it was to interpret his translations.

His achievements were acknowledged in Poland and Slovenia and he was elected to the Academy of Arts and Sciences in both countries. He knew a great deal of English poetry and loved reciting it. Another passion was music; he played the organ, piano and accordion, and while in the army was in great demand as a jazz clarinettist. He was very interested in sport and was a keen footballer in his local park.

For a time he ran a choir at SSEES, and a Czech choir in Ladbroke Grove. One of his former students - now also a Slavonic scholar - wrote of him that "he brought Old Church Slavonic to life in a way which must be unparalleled"; that he was "admired as a gifted stylist who made philology fun"; and that he "nurtured in all his students a curiosity and a resistance to narrow theory."

Leeming continued to work during his final illness; one of his last projects was a translation from the Slavonic version of The Jewish War by Flavius Josephus, a work dating from the first century AD. Co-edited with his daughter, Kate Leeming, Josephus' Jewish War and its Slavonic Version appeared in 2003.

A modest man with an endearing sense of humour, he claimed his first army posting - to a bomb disposal unit in north London - was not dangerous because he didn't have to defuse the bombs; he just had to dig them out of the ground. His sense of fun, combined with Monika's renowned hospitality, always made it a joy to visit their home in Finchley, where they lived for many years.

Martin Delgado and David Bennett