Obituary: Professor William Haas

Click to follow
The Independent Online
William Haas was influential in promoting the fledgling science of linguistics - a relatively late arrival in British universities - in the years after the Second World War, and, as the first Mont Follick Professor, headed Manchester University's newly established Department of General Linguistics from 1963. His interest in the subject had been fired by lectures he had attended in Prague given by members of the Prague School of Linguistics.

Haas was a characteristic representative of a Central European tradition of scholarship: he had a wide culture, gritty individualism, and fierce intellectual integrity, all combined with humour, personal kindness and urbane charm.

He was born in 1912 in Ostrava, then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, later part of the new state of Czechoslovakia. He studied Law and Philosophy in Prague, until the threat of Nazi persecution (his father was prominent in left-wing politics) forced him to escape to Britain via Poland in the spring of 1939.

Once in Britain, he enrolled at University College, Cardiff, to study Philosophy and German, later graduating with first class honours, despite his initial total lack of knowledge of English. (He used to say that he learnt English by the somewhat unusual method of writing philosophical essays, which were then meticulously corrected by his professor, J.W. Scott.) He was appointed Lecturer in German at Cardiff in 1945.

Although he had received no formal training in linguistics, he became ever more deeply involved in writing and research on linguistic topics, and in 1955 he was appointed to a Senior Lectureship in Linguistics at Manchester, one of the first academic posts in linguistics outside London. He was a founder member of the Linguistics Society of Great Britain (still the subject's dominant learned society in the country) and one of the original members of the Board of Editors of the new Journal of Linguistics.

Haas made his own distinctive contributions to the subject. Among linguists he was probably best known for his theoretical work in mainstream areas, but perhaps more unusual was his pioneering work in the linguistic study of writing systems.

In 1963, he became the first holder of the Mont Follick Chair of Comparative Philology and General Linguistics. This chair was endowed by a former Labour MP for Loughborough who believed that the English spelling system was seriously defective because of a lack of consistency in the relationship between spelling and pronunciation (Shaw's tongue-in-cheek suggestion of "ghoti" as a possible spelling of "fish" - "gh" as in "laugh", "o" as in "women", and "ti" as in "nation" - illustrates the point).

Mont Follick at first hoped to commit the incumbent of the new chair to the pro- motion of spelling reform. However, this was judged by the senate at Manchester to be an improper restriction of academic freedom, and a compromise was eventually reached whereby the holder of the chair would undertake to devote at least part of his energies to the linguistic study of writing systems.

Haas accepted this challenge, and his work on the basic principles underlying different ways of writing down human speech was ground-breaking. He was always lukewarm towards spelling reform. He did not deny that the English spelling system was in many respects capricious, but he was opposed to a system with complete phonetic consistency, arguing that valuable features would be lost. For instance, if the plural of "cats" is spelled with an "s", and the plural of "dogs" with a "z", a closer sound-symbol match is achieved, but the important relationship between "s" and the meaning "plural" is lost.

The department Haas founded, although much changed in many respects, still, in a curious way, carries traces of his intellectual style, especially in its distrust of orthodoxies, and a deep respect for the often untidy, and theoretically recalcitrant facts about human language and language behaviour.

William Haas, philologist: born Ostrava, Austro-Hungary 28 May 1912; Lecturer, German Department, University College, Cardiff 1945-55; Senior Lecturer in General Linguistics, Manchester University 1955-63, Mont Follick Professor of Comparative Philology and General Linguistics 1963-79 (Emeritus); twice married (one son, one daughter); died Manchester 4 February 1997.