Joseph Wright FBA (1855–1930) rose from humble origins to become Professor of Comparative Philology at Oxford University.
Born in Thackley, near Bradford in Yorkshire, the seventh son of a navvy, he started work as a "donkey-boy" (carriage driver) at the age of six, became a "doffer" (remover of full bobbins) in a Yorkshire mill, and never had any formal schooling. He learnt to read and write at the age of 15, becoming fascinated by languages. He studied in Germany and completed a Ph.D. on Qualitative and Quantitative Changes of the Indo-Germanic Vowel System in Greek at the University of Heidelberg in 1885. From 1891 to 1901 he was Deputy Professor and from 1901 to 1925 Professor of Comparative Philology at Oxford.
He specialised in the Germanic languages and wrote a range of introductory grammars for Old English, Middle English, Old High German, Middle High German and Gothic which were still being revised and reprinted 50 years after his death. He also published a historical grammar of German.
He had a strong interest in English dialects and claimed that his 1893 Windhill Dialect Grammar was "the first grammar of its kind in England." Undoubtedly, his greatest achievement was the editing of the six-volume English Dialect Dictionary, which he published between 1898 and 1905, initially at his own expense. This remains a definitive work, a snapshot of English dialect speech at the end of the 19th century. In the course of his work on the Dictionary, he formed a committee to gather Yorkshire material, which gave rise in 1897 to the Yorkshire Dialect Society, which claims to be the world's oldest surviving dialect society. He was the author of the Dialect Test. Wright had been offered a position at a Canadian university, which would have paid £500 per year, which was then a very generous salary. However, Wright opted to finish the Dialect Dictionary and undertook this task without any financial backing from any sponsor.
In 1896 he married Elizabeth Mary Lea (1863-1958), and she was the co-author of his Old and Middle English Grammars. She also wrote the popular book, Rustic Speech and Folklore (Oxford University Press 1913), in which she makes reference to their various walking and cycle trips into the Yorkshire Dales, as well as various articles and essays. She survived him and wrote a biography, The Life of Joseph Wright.
Wright was an important early influence on J. R. R. Tolkien, and was one of his tutors at Oxford: studying the Grammar of the Gothic Language with Wright seems to have been a turning-point in Tolkien's life. In the course of editing the Dictionary he corresponded regularly with Thomas Hardy. Wright was greatly admired by Virginia Woolf, who writes of him in her diary that, "The triumph of learning is that it leaves something done solidly for ever. Everybody knows now about dialect, owing to his dixery." He was the inspiration for the character of Mr Brook in The Pargiters, an early draft of The Years.
Joseph Wright (linguist)
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5 March 2009
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