Professor Angus Mcintosh

Wide-ranging Edinburgh linguist
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The Independent Online

Angus McIntosh had a vast range of academic and scholarly interests. On his retirement in 1979 after 31 years as Forbes Professor of English Language at Edinburgh University, McIntosh was presented not with one but with two Festschrifts.

One of these, naturally enough, focused on philological and historical topics in Middle English and Scots - place and personal names, the spelling of Middle English, the rise of standard English, Scottish dialects, the philological study of medieval texts and their metre and style, and especially the dialects of Middle English. These were all areas where McIntosh had published, and often had done groundbreaking research, and where he had, equally often, also been an influential motivator of research.

But McIntosh was not only a medievalist and a historian of the language. In fact, for the first 16 years of his tenure, he was Professor of English Language and General Linguistics, and as such had responsibility not only for maintaining and extending the philological study of English (already being handled when he came to Edinburgh by O.K. Schram) but also for introducing the teaching of modern linguistics into the university.

This was an enterprise that was so successful that a separate department of Linguistics emerged in 1964; indeed, already in the late Fifties and into the Sixties Edinburgh had become, as it has continued to be, renowned as a centre of linguistic research and teaching associated with the English language.

Accordingly, the second of McIntosh's Festschrifts focused on areas to do with the structure and use of the present-day language, areas of study where again he had been active and influential in research and scholarly publication: systems of the English verb and other areas of English grammar, literary and poetic uses of English, the written language as a separate system, contact between English and Scottish Gaelic in the Highlands and Islands, and so on.

Against the background of his wide variety of academic interests and activities, there are two broad areas which, over the longer term, mattered more than any others in leading to achievements which would not have been but for the far-seeing presence of Angus McIntosh.

First, he made a great motivating contribution to the study of the linguistic situation in Scotland in all its aspects. The early years of his period in Edinburgh were devoted to establishing (along with H.J. Uldall, David Abercrombie and others) the English side of the Linguistic Survey of Scotland. Along with professors in ancillary fields, he was also a prime mover in the establishment of the School of Scottish Studies. At the same time, he was involved in making the position of A Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue (and of its future editor, A.J. Aitken) more secure in Edinburgh.

All of these long-term projects and activities (and there were others - for instance, The Scottish National Dictionary) have come to completion and/or fruition in the last decade or so; a key and continuing element in their development from the outset was the energy and eloquence that McIntosh could show in persuading university authorities to establish these institutions - and then to provide, and to go on providing, the financial means.

But the abiding achievement of McIntosh's scholarly career is the monumental, large-format, four-volume A Linguistic Atlas of Late Medieval English, a unique achievement in the historical record of any language. The atlas is the product of close to four decades of painstaking, methodical, detailed analysis of the written character of a huge number of late medieval documents of all kinds, with the research often carried out against a fraught financial background. There were, of course, others who contributed: particularly, in the later stages, Michael Benskin, Margaret Laing and Keith Williamson; and especially, from quite early on, Glasgow's Professor of English Language, Michael Samuels, who joined the project while still a lecturer at Edinburgh. But the major achievement, from conception (at leisure, on a Spanish beach in 1951, with the launch of the Scottish survey behind him) to acclaimed publication in 1986, belonged, in very great measure, to McIntosh.

There were many other sides to Angus McIntosh. Some people were surprised to discover, despite the name, not someone born in Scotland, but near Sunderland, and educated at Ryhope Grammar School, and afterwards at Oxford and Harvard, and who had taught at Swansea and Oxford before coming to Edinburgh. But, from his arrival in 1948, McIntosh surely never thought of himself as anything but a very Scot.

He finished the Second World War as a major in Intelligence, at Bletchley Park's Station X, where people like Roy Jenkins were day-to-day colleagues; McIntosh's lively and longstanding interest in the use of computers as a research tool, and some of the imaginative analytic techniques he innovated in his dialectological research, may - indeed, must - have had their roots in his experiences and involvements as a code-breaker.

At one time McIntosh was J.R.R. Tolkien's squash partner, sometimes claiming (tongue-in-cheek) that he was surely entitled to a share of royalties given that (as he again claimed) Tolkien started writing only when house-bound with a squash injury. McIntosh had a role, as Wittenberg's Rector Magnificus, in the 1967 Ouds/Burton-Taylor film production of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, directed by Richard Burton and Nevill Coghill. And, in both official and off-duty moments, there were wonderful one-liners, arising from some passing circumstance, foible, or irritation - and often quoted for years afterwards by those who were there.

He put together masterly metrical and rhythmical linguistic exercises, and occasionally in the internal mail there would be a light or comic (and sometimes a quite serious) poem; some of these appeared in an American anthology, Linguistic Muse (1979). I remember one in particular on how unlikely it was that a poet called Laurie Lee could ever become popular in Japan. McIntosh was fascinating to work with, always showing vision; as a one-time colleague put it, "he seemed able to see round corners".

My own first meeting with Angus McIntosh was one morning in February 1960. I was a second-year student of English, in my fifth term, when - out of the blue - I received a handwritten letter from Angus (or Professor McIntosh, as I thought of him then) asking if I could call at the office of his secretary, Marjorie Gardner, to fix up an appointment to discuss my "encouraging" exam results in English Language.

It is hard to explain how positive and supportive this kind of intervention was; and I know that I was by no means the only Edinburgh English undergraduate to be drawn to the "language" side partly because of Angus McIntosh's friendly and informal interest in one's plans.

Norman Macleod