Professor Henry Hoenigswald

Guiding force in historical linguistics

Henry Max Hoenigswald, historical linguist and Indo-Europeanist: born Breslau, Germany 17 April 1915; Professor of Lingustics, University of Pennsylvania 1948-85 (Emeritus); married 1944 Gabriele Schoepflich (died 2001; two daughters); died Haverford, Pennsylvania 16 June 2003.

The historical linguist Henry Hoenigswald belonged to that generation of German refugees who profoundly altered American academic and intellectual life.

Born in 1915 in the city of Breslau (now Wroclaw in Poland), he learned the classical languages in the German Gymnasium and trained as an Indo-Europeanist and a historical and comparative linguist in various universities (Munich, Zurich, Padua, Florence), none of which kept him for long because of his refugee status - his grandparents were Jewish. In 1939 he escaped to the United States.

As a research assistant in linguistics at Yale he encountered all at once freedom, personal safety and a level of intellectual exhilaration which 30 years later he remembered with emotion (though in his usual self-deprecatory style): "I would not have had the courage. . . to quote Wordsworth to the effect that to be young in that dawn was very heaven, but the feeling is just about right."

At the time in the US, linguistics was turning to structuralism and had shifted from the earlier historical approach to a theoretical and synchronic approach. The 24-year-old Hoenigswald had no training in theory, methodology or description. The new experiences led him to question the rationale for the results obtained by historical linguists, to ask what their justification was and to explore the possibility of formalising the method. As he wrote, "what was exciting beyond words was the way in which old things fell into place".

In its turn, his work, which impressively combined the approaches of the old and the new world, gave a new dignity to historical linguistics. "Historical linguists, he said, "have typically done very good work, magnificent work as a matter of fact, without being able to state the principles very well." Hoenigswald's main task became that of stating the principles, while not neglecting the concrete philological work.

The 1950s and 1960 saw a number of very influential articles on internal reconstruction, the comparative method and language change, some of which preluded to his two books Language Change and Language Reconstruction (1960) and Studies in Formal Historical Linguistics (1973) and to his later edited volumes. At the same time numerous papers (now more than 150) discussed concrete problems of Indo-European, Greek, Latin, Etruscan etc, as well as his innovative views on the history of 19th-century linguistics. His election to the National Academy of Sciences, a rare honour for a historical linguist, was a tribute to his rigour.

The earnestness with which he was constantly prepared to rethink the old results in a new framework, his commitment to research (his last paper was written three weeks before his death), his deep dislike of all sorts of cant and rhetoric, were characteristic of the scholar but also of the man.

He was loyal to the institutions to which he belonged, worked hard for them, but also knew how to criticise them. He was the mainstay of the department of linguistics of the University of Pennsylvania where he taught from 1948 to his retirement in 1985; he was equally devoted to the American Philosophical Society, of which he was a member for more than 30 years, and to the Linguistic Society of America, which made him its president in 1958. He treasured his links with Oxford (where he spent a year in 1976) and with the British Academy: he was elected a Corresponding Fellow in 1986.

Fundamentally shy, often silent, always reticent and unwilling to put himself forward, terrified of prolixity, he nevertheless did not conceal his strong opinions. He was deeply liberal and ready to fight for his views (he and his wife, a remarkable classical scholar, were committed members of Amnesty International), hated any form of bigotry, oppression and discrimination, and yet, in spite of what he and his family had suffered, never showed any sign of personal bitterness.

Anna Morpurgo Davies