Obituary: Professor David Abercrombie

John Laver,R. E. Asher
Friday 10 July 1992 23:02

David Abercrombie, phonetician, born 19 December 1909, Assistant Lecturer in English London School of Economics (LSE) 1934-38, Director of Studies Institute of English Studies Athens 1938-40, Lecturer in English Cairo University 1940-45, LSE 1945-47, Lecturer in Phonetics Leeds University 1947-48, Edinburgh University 1948-51, Senior Lecturer 1951-57, Reader 1957-63, Professor of Phonetics 1964-80 (Emeritus 1980-92), Lecturer in Linguistics and Phonetics Glasgow University 1980-81, married 1944 Mary Marble, died Edinburgh 4 July 1992.

DAVID ABERCROMBIE was one of the great phoneticians of the 20th century - in a direct intellectual line of descent from Henry Sweet in the 19th century - whose career in phonetics spanned 50 years, from 1930 to 1980.

Abercrombie was the son of the poet Lascelles Abercrombie, and educated at Leeds Grammar School, Leeds University, University College London and the Sorbonne. He began his university experience of phonetics as a postgraduate student at UCL, where his mentor was Daniel Jones. His first academic appointment was as Assistant Lecturer in English at the London School of Economics in 1934, where he returned after the interruption of the war to a lectureship in 1945 for a further two years. His attitudes to phonetics were strongly influenced by his teachers and colleagues at UCL and the LSE, above all by Jones, but also by JR Firth, Bronislaw Malinowski, CK Ogden and Arthur Lloyd James. Other early influences were the Danish glossematicians Louis Hjelmslev and HJ Uldall.

One of Abercrombie's early projects during this period was to advise Robert Bridges, the Poet Laureate, on the reformed spelling system he was devising for the publication of his collected essays (later published in seven volumes by Oxford University Press, with the help of the distinguished typographer Stanley Morison, who designed the new letters). Abercrombie maintained this interest in writing systems throughout his career, and he became one of the world's leading authorities on matters of phonetic transcription.

During the war, he worked in Athens, Cyprus and Cairo, partly for the British Council, Cairo University and Egyptian State Broadcasting. He also worked as Assistant Censor in the Control Headquarters of Anglo-Egyptian Censorship, and briefly in the Army. This period in the Mediterranean sometimes prompted undue speculation that he was the original for one of Lawrence Durrell's characters in the Alexandria Quartet.

After the war he returned there for a further two years before moving in 1947 to a lectureship in phonetics at Leeds University. In 1948 he joined Edinburgh University, and the flowering of his 50- year career, already well established in the 1930s at UCL and LSE, came in the 32 years he spent at Edinburgh. He was appointed to his Chair in Phonetics in 1964.

Abercrombie was by any standards a great teacher, demanding, and inspirational. He set very high standards. The tradition of teaching and research in phonetics that grew under his very personal and dominant guidance produced some notable phoneticians. Many of his students became professors of phonetics in departments around the world. One of his most influential students, Peter Ladefoged - Professor of Phonetics at the University of California from 1965 to 1991 - became both President of the International Phonetic Association, the world body of phoneticians on whose council Abercrombie served for many years, and President of the Linguistic Society of America.

There are several aspects of the subject for which Abercrombie was especially distinguished, and in any single one of which his work would have secured an international reputation. One of his great strengths was the history of phonetics, about which he knew more than anyone. He had a great sense of the intellectual continuities in the 500 years of history of phonetics in Britain. No one knew more about this history than he did.

Another area he made his own was the study of rhythm in speech, though his espousal and promotion of some ideas here continues to attract controversy. Another was the teaching of English pronunciation to foreign learners. A fourth was the study of tone of voice and voice quality.

His main influence on a wider international audience was through Elements of General Phonetics (1967). This textbook is still in print after more than 25 years, and has been tremendously successful. In many interesting ways, this book is a key to the subtle, aesthetic and thoughtful nature of his intellect and character. The continuing appeal of the book certainly lies in part in the elegant, humane and lucid style that so characterised his writing. The book is very easy to read, and undergraduates tend to read it very quickly. To do so is quite to mistake the depth and quality of his thinking; there is not a phrase in the book, so ostensibly transparent at first reading, that on adequate contemplation is not revealed as the product of a deep theoretical understanding of the intricate structure of speech and language.

David Abercrombie was the doyen of the British school of phonetics in the second half of the century. History will rank him as one of the great phoneticians in the history of the discipline over many centuries.

Those of us who had the privilege of knowing him as a friend will also know his more personal qualities - as a gentle, wise and caring man. His successes, professional and personal, were founded above all on the resolute support of his wife, Mary. Her generosity of spirit, and her warm hospitality over many years of open house on Sunday mornings lay at the heart of the friendship they both extended to all their students and colleagues, and which so enriched us all.

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