Professor Richard Hogg: Historian of the English language

Monday 10 December 2007 01:00

Richard Milne Hogg, historian of the English language: born Edinburgh 20 May 1944; Lecturer in English Language, University of Amsterdam 1969-73; Lecturer in English Language, Lancaster University 1973-80; Smith Professor of English Language and Medieval Literature, Manchester University 1980-2007; General Editor, Cambridge History of the English Language 1992-2001; FBA 1994; married 1969 Margaret White (two sons); died Manchester 6 September 2007.

Richard Hogg, a world-renowned specialist in the linguistic history of English, died suddenly midway through the sabbatical year which should have allowed him to bring important projects on dialectology and on Old English to completion. His best-known achievement is the six-volume Cambridge History of the English Language (CHEL, 1992-2001), of which he was General Editor.

Hogg's roots were in Edinburgh, where he was born, in 1944, grew up and studied. After nearly 40 years away, he was still wholly a Scot in speech and sympathies. His postgraduate career in Edinburgh had begun with two contrasting academic preoccupations: the Chomskyan analysis of present-day English syntax on the one hand (his PhD topic), and Middle English dialects on the other (his research post). In their very different ways, both represented state-of-the-art linguistics of the time.

At 26 he took up a lectureship in Amsterdam, and four years later he moved to Lancaster University. In 1980 he arrived at Manchester University as the surprisingly young Smith Professor of English Language and Medieval Literature. Not that I recall him ever teaching literature: it was rarely possible to get him to do anything that he didn't want to.

His early publications are mostly on the syntax of words like "both" and "none", including the book (English Quantifier Systems, 1977) derived from his PhD. Increasingly he started to focus on the sounds and forms of historical English, especially Old English, the period up to about 1100, on which he became an authority. He tackled linguistic change generally, and an interest in analogy led to one paper called simply "Snuck" an explanation for that common variant of "sneaked". He also worked in phonological theory, publishing the influential textbook Metrical Phonology (1987) with his colleague and former student, Chris McCully.

The historical strand led to the multi-author Cambridge History of the English Language (CHEL), a big project which took many years of planning and good management to bring to successful completion. It has become a standard work in the field. Hogg himself edited the first volume on the earliest period of English and wrote the chapter on phonology and morphology. Last year, we jointly edited a new one-volume History of the English Language, and Hogg was still working on his own Grammar of Old English (volume 1 published in 1992, volume 2 nearly complete at his death).

He ranged widely. Interests included English dialectology both the facts of variation in historical and present-day English and the ways in which scholars have approached these facts. Likewise he followed the history of English grammar writing and attitudes to language. His main current project, three-quarters finished, was a history of English dialectology that combined those themes of language variation and of intellectual and cultural history. He was planning a joint monograph with his newest colleague, Nuria Yáñez-Bouza, on the history of prescriptivism in England.

In the mid-1990s Hogg became one of the founding editors (together with Bas Aarts and me) of a new academic journal published by Cambridge University Press, English Language and Linguistics. It would look for the best in English language scholarship, but with a constant eye to its relation with linguistic theory. In addition to his scholarly expertise, Richard Hogg brought to the project a shrewd understanding of the academic world and of academic publishing. Throughout his career he strongly promoted the importance of English Language studies. Philologists pay close attention to textual evidence; linguists build theories. Hogg did both.

Although he wore it lightly, Hogg was always a thinker, and time and again his judgement was proved sound. He came up with imaginative, often ingenious, suggestions both as a theorist and as an organiser. In meetings he could talk his way through the twists and turns of a complicated sequence of ideas with a body language to match. He had acted as Dean of the Faculty of Arts in Manchester (1990-93), and was influential nationally and internationally, often called on as adviser or consultant. In 1994 he was elected a Fellow of the British Academy, and a decade later of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

Hogg was fun to have around, always ready for conversation and gossip. His enthusiasm for the English language was infectious, and in breaks he could chat with students about football, film or country music. Indeed, the lectures themselves were often studded with anecdotes. He started a blog in 2006 in an "attempt to expose some of the many fallacies about English".

David Denison

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