Obituary: Professor A. J. Aitken

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The Independent Online
A. J. AITKEN had much in common with the legendary Sir James Murray, first editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. With Sir James Craigie and David Murison, they belonged to a tradition of Scottish lexicographers.

Aitken was the foremost authority on the Scots language and an influential teacher, but his most enduring monument will be A Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue, to which he devoted nearly 40 years of his life. This great historical dictionary spans the period from the Middle Ages to 1700. Seven volumes have been published since its first fascicle appeared in 1931, and it is due for completion in the year 2000.

Adam Jack Aitken was born in Edinburgh in 1921. He was educated at Lasswade Secondary School, in Midlothian, and Edinburgh University. As with many of his generation, his education was interrupted by the Second World War. He served in the Royal Artillery, and in June 1944 was among the first to take part in the Normandy landings. In 1947 he graduated from Edinburgh with first class honours in English Language and Literature.

Thenceforward he combined a taxing double career as lexicographer and lecturer. From 1947 to 1956 he was assistant to Sir William Craigie, first editor of A Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue, and from 1956 to 1986 he was himself editor. For much of this time he was first Assistant Lecturer, then Senior Lecturer, and finally Reader at Edinburgh University, lecturing on English and also pioneering the teaching of Scots as a university subject. His distinction as a scholar was rewarded by many honours. In 1981 the British Academy awarded him the Sir Israel Gollancz Prize; in 1983 he received the degree of DLitt from Edinburgh University; and in 1965 he was appointed an Honorary Professor.

Jack Aitken revolutionised the scope and the methodology of A Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue. He extended the reading programme of both books and manuscripts, and greatly increased the dictionary's data-base. He also increased the number of quotations illustrating the forms and senses of words.

He steered the project through several financial crises (one caused by the collapse of the Maxwell publishing empire), and other problems of funding and staffing. He regarded the Dictionary not simply as a collection of old words, but as a cultural asset, comparable to the national museums: a rich source of material on innumerable aspects of Scottish life, law, history and popular traditions. The Dictionary is of immense value to historians, and to editors of the early Scottish poets, such as Dunbar and Henryson.

Aitken was an effective teacher, and many of his undergraduate courses were attended by colleagues. Most of the present editorial team at the Dictionary were his pupils, and he inspired several of those who now lecture in the language departments of Scottish universities. He was interested in every aspect of the language of the Scottish Lowlands, past and present - not just its vocabulary, but its syntax, orthography and phonology, and its status as a minority language. He is one of the select band of philologists to have had a linguistic "Law" named after him, "Aitken's Law" - the so-called "Scottish Vowel Length Rule". A collection of his numerous but scattered articles is to be published shortly.

He was remarkably selfless in answering the queries of younger scholars. Over the years he served on innumerable committees and public bodies that were concerned with the Scots language, or, more generally, with lexicography, or the uses of computing in linguistics. He was a consultant to The Middle English Dictionary and The Dictionary of Old English. Particularly close to his heart was the best-selling Concise Scots Dictionary (1985); he was an adviser to its editorial team, and provided for it a succinct "History of Scots".

Aitken also made important contributions to preserving and publicising the literary heritage of Scotland. In 1975 he was a co-founder of the successful triennial conferences on early Scottish literature and language. He was an active vice-president of the Scottish Text Society, on whose Council he had served since 1962.

Jack Aitken was a good raconteur, with a warm and convivial personality. Many will recall the highly international gatherings at Jack and Chandra Aitken's home in Lockharton Gardens, or latterly in their exotically furnished flat on the edge of the New Town. Jack loved, above all, a fine malt - he was, as one Italian friend put it, il maestro della whiskologia. He showed great glee over a recent invitation to give a lecture on the Scots language, hosted by the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. In his later years - despite increasing ill-health - he delighted in foreign travel; one of his last trips was to South Korea.

Adam Jack Aitken, lexicographer: born Edinburgh 19 June 1921; Assistant Editor, A Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue 1947-56, Editor 1956- 86; Assistant Lecturer in English Language, Edinburgh University 1947- 65, Senior Lecturer 1965-75, Reader 1975-79, Honorary Professor 1985-98; married 1952 Chandra Manson (three sons, one daughter); died Edinburgh 11 February 1998.