Robert Lawrence Trask, linguist: born Olean, New York 10 November 1944; Lecturer in Linguistics, Liverpool University 1979-88; Lecturer in Linguistics, Sussex University 1988-98, Professor 1998-2004; twice married; died Brighton 27 March 2004.
Larry Trask, Professor of Linguistics at Sussex University, was a remarkable and dominant figure in his field.
Outside his specialist area of Basque, he is best known for three brilliant reference works: his Dictionary of Grammatical Terms (1993) was what first made the whole of Linguistics sit up and realise that here was an exceptional talent - exceptional in the clarity not only of his understanding of complicated matters of detail, but also of his concise explanations, which come straight to the point without padding, obfuscation, or parti pris. If you want to understand some aspect of grammar, in almost any language, five minutes with this book will probably enlighten you more effectively than a large specialist tome on the topic.
It would be tempting to attribute the book's success to Trask's exceptional common sense, except for the fact that Trask himself was highly sceptical of the value of common sense. He worked on a basis of ever-expanding knowledge and of scientific method, whereas common sense to him implied a reliance on instinct and hunches rather than on knowledge and experience; and he had a point. After all, linguists on opposing sides of arguments often claim both to appeal to common sense. Trask had no great theory of his own to proselytise, which helped greatly in a field where theories go out of date so soon. That dictionary is probably within easy hand's reach in the office of almost every university linguist.
It was followed by the equally remarkable, full and concise Dictionary of Phonetics and Phonology (1996), which in one way was more impressive, in that Trask had not previously been thought of, or had thought of himself, as a specialist in this field; and, the last of this trio, the Dictionary of Comparative and Historical Linguistics (2000), which is similarly full of simply phrased, intelligent explanations of highly complex topics pertinent to the study of almost any language or language family that a potential user could be interested in. Other ostensibly general works tend to be based on a knowledge mainly of English and of theories based on English; not Larry Trask's.
This last work demonstrated the way that his interests had developed during the 1990s, when he turned himself into a world expert in historical linguistics. His Historical Linguistics (1996) is one important result of this. This field includes the study of the prehistoric languages of the remote past, in which the main analytical weapon comes from reconstructing backwards from the attested languages that have subsequently developed from the ancestor under study; so establishing which existing languages are related in such a way, by sharing an ancestor, is a crucial initial step to subsequent analysis.
Such was his admirably Johnsonian refusal to be impressed by resemblances that are more likely to be due to chance, that he at times managed to annoy specialists of a particular language area while impressing the rest; not by expressing strong opinions of his own so much as by demonstrating the problems with the strong opinions held by others (including what he came to regard as the quasi-religious nonsense of Chomskyan "Universal Grammar").
He became a pervasive presence on the electronic discussion list for Historical Linguistics (HistLing), which already seems much duller without him. He entered those discussions in order to seek enlightenment rather than to exhibit his erudition; as he liked to say, "Historical Linguistics is difficult", and he was happy to ask for and take advice from anybody. This humility largely explains why he knew so much more than most. Here was a scholar with traditional virtues, working cheerfully in the most modern of environments.
But these contributions, so valuable to other linguists, are not likely to be his most lasting influence over all. For several of his books are introductory texts for students, and genuinely introductory at that, both on general linguistics as a whole and specifically within Historical Linguistics. These works are splendidly intelligible. They are also widely used in the United States. Many lecturers will be basing their own teaching on his work by now, and his eventual influence will be immeasurable.
Language: the basics (1999) and A Student's Dictionary of Language and Linguistics (1997), for example, can be recommended as initial readers to anybody, student or not, who wishes to have a clearer understanding of what language is, and of what linguists do and do not do. Indeed, Trask wrote so well and so clearly that even his dictionaries can be read straight through like novels, with enormous profit and often entertainment.
Larry Trask was an American citizen, originally from the Allegheny mountains near Buffalo in upstate New York. He gained an MA in Organic Chemistry at Brandeis University; he embarked on a PhD in Chemistry, but then abandoned that and went to work for the Peace Corps, teaching chemistry at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara. He began there to learn Turkish and discovered his true calling; Turkish has what seems to speakers of Western European languages a number of ostensibly strange features, but which are in themselves logical and explicable, and understanding the way that this language worked began to take over from chemistry as Trask's main interest.
He was forced to leave Turkey in 1970 (for political reasons, being an American) and decided to go back home via a few days in London. While in London, he met the woman who was to become his first wife, a Spanish Basque trilingual in Spanish, Basque and English. He decided to stay in London, started learning Basque and enrolled in the Central London Polytechnic's undergraduate degree course in Linguistics (while teaching science in a school).
Somewhat accidentally, he had hit on the perfect background for such a course, being well trained in scientific methods and already skilled in two non-Indo-European languages. His teachers were so impressed that by the time of his third undergraduate year he was helping with the first-year tutorials on the same course. After his undergraduate degree, he enrolled at the School of Oriental and African Studies to work for a PhD on the syntax of Basque, under the initial supervision of Professor Charles Bazell; the PhD was eventually awarded in 1983.
He was one of Liverpool University's two Lecturers in Linguistics from 1979 until the university was forced to close the Department of Linguistics in 1988. This department was small but exceptional. All students there studied a Joint or Combined Honours degree, usually combining Linguistics with a particular language. It was the type of linguistics department which specialises in understanding the internal operations of a large number of languages, rather than being based on philosophy, computing or abstract theory.
One of the compulsory first-year courses was an "Introduction to an Unfamiliar Language", which gave Trask his chance to explain about Basque. He was also adopted by the university's Hispanic Studies department to give a final-year introductory option on "Basque Language and Culture", and a more specialised MA option in Basque language, which he was happy to do despite correctly insisting that Basque is not a Hispanic study.
The department was flourishing and growing, with excellent students and results, when the Thatcherite fashion for rationalisation hit Liverpool University's language departments especially hard. The lecturers in Linguistics let their plight be known at a national linguistics conference, whereupon four other universities immediately expressed their desire to welcome them in; eventually Trask and his colleague Max Wheeler were relocated to Sussex University in 1988.
This forced departure was unfortunate for Liverpool, but a brilliant move by Sussex, because the two linguists were already then, and continued to be, two of the best and most admired in Britain. His Liverpool colleagues and students remember Trask fondly, not least because as a senior tutor in one of the undergraduate halls of residence he presided over an astonishing number and variety of games - hundreds of board games lined one of his rooms at the hall in the way that books lined his office - and he arranged lively games of baseball in the hall grounds; above all he presided over protracted and even eerie sessions of the role-play game Dungeons and Dragons. His sense of fun was irrepressible. There has never been a hall tutor like him, before nor since.
In Sussex, Larry Trask was in a different environment, being part of a School of Cognitive and Computing Sciences. Academically, he flourished. Over the next 16 years he published an average of over a book a year. He gained a personal chair in 1998, by which time he had become an internationally respected star. It was difficult for colleagues, and even perhaps for himself, to keep track of all the books he wrote. None had actually been published before his arrival in 1989, but he had been preparing the material for several publications all along.
This included his doctoral work on Basque syntax, which has never been published in its original form; when his own interests led increasingly from grammatical theory to historical linguistics, this affected the development of his interests in Basque also, and as a result, his main research work is his magnificent History of Basque (1997). This is a staggeringly good book. The specialists in Basque have suffered more than those of any other language from unhelpful non-specialists; there is no evidence at all that Basque is directly or indirectly related to any other living language, but people are continually saying that there is, apparently in a belief that the history of the language is a great unknown and so any theory can be proposed. In fact, a great deal is now known about the history of Basque since at least Roman times (when it was, or at least is now, usually referred to as "Aquitanian").
Trask's book cleared the air and is now seen as a standard reference work. It managed to deflate the Spanish scholars who like to attribute particular developments of Castilian to the influence of Basque, which, as he shows, is very probably negligible. He also inspired and co-edited a number of books of collected studies on Basque linguistic history.
At the time of his death he was on research leave, having gained a Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship to prepare his long-envisaged Etymological Dictionary of the Basque Language. He continued working on this project long into his unpleasant battle with motor neurone disease, and it is to be hoped that the progress he had made will not now be lost. His second wife, Jan, to whom he was utterly devoted, sustained and nursed him through his final illness.
There is a two-volume collection of nearly 40 essays in Trask's honour in press at the moment, partly on Basque and partly on Historical Linguistics, written by the many experts and colleagues who wished to honour his achievements; this was initiated before his final illness, and the original plan was for it to be secret until publication, but, when his death became imminent, we realised in time to tell him about this project, and that news cheered him up greatly. For, although he had come to be a dominant figure in several fields, both for his books and his unstoppable contributions to the e-discussion lists for Linguistics and Historical Linguistics (losing the ability to speak did not involve losing his ability to e-mail), he was essentially a modest, cheerful, friendly, helpful and unassuming man, who just loved most of all to enlighten people.
Last year, the journalist Andrew Brown said quite rightly that Larry Trask was the one linguist working in Britain who deserves to be as widely known as Noam Chomsky. He is fondly remembered by Sussex and Liverpool colleagues and students; we could all tell that he was exceptional, and one of the greatest scholars that those universities have ever had.