This month, Geoffrey Leech, the eminent Professor and the founder of the Department of Linguistics and English Language at Lancaster University, passed away. Due to his major contributions to the fields of corpus linguistics, stylistics, pragmatics and semantics, as well as his work on several renowned descriptive grammars of the English language, the phrase “Old professor never die, they simply fade away” is more than suitable in this particular case. Several years ago Geoffrey wrote an academic autobiography where you can read about his academic journey, interests, experiences, colleagues and the numerous projects he was involved in the course of his career.
Since Geoffrey’s interests have several overlaps with our ongoing project, I would here like to mention just a few of his many contributions to the investigations of English grammar and language change. Geoffrey was one of the first scholars to recognize the potential of studying naturally occurring language and one of the pioneers in corpus linguistics. His work on the Lancaster-Oslo/Bergen Corpus (LOB Corpus), the British English equivalent of the American Brown Corpus (later also including the Brown family corpora) led to many relevant discoveries in corpus tagging methods, and also to many studies dealing with diachronic grammatical changes in English and with differences between British and American English.
Geoffrey contributed to three highly influential descriptive English grammars, A Grammar of Contemporary English (1972), A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (1985) and the Longman Grammar or Spoken and Written English (1999). They all used innovative approaches based on describing language use and were seen as the main authorities on English grammar.
Some of the changes in English language Geoffrey was dealing with included concepts such as colloquialization, the adaptation of written towards spoken norms, an example of which is the increased use of contractions in writing (can’t, won’t, it’s, we’re). He also did work on grammaticalization, the process of turning lexical material into grammatical, and he described the increase in the use of semi-modals (such as gonna, gotta and wanna) in English which are slowly assuming the role of the modal verbs. Geoffrey also described the process of Americanization, or adopting American linguistic habits and conventions to the British context (another one of the recurring topics on our blog). In one of our older posts, we also wrote about Geoffrey’s plenary lecture at the Helsinki Corpus Festival where he described the decline in the usage of the passive construction in English, which is partly influenced by the prescriptivist tradition.
And the list goes on, we could hardly fit all of Geoffrey’s valuable contributions in this post. To find out a bit more about his legacy from the man himself, you can here see Geoffrey in conversation with Tony McEnery in 2013 at Lancaster University.
Thanks for the link to the autobiography, it was worth a read. It’s nice to know the story behind so many of the tools and resources we take for granted today. And amazing to be reminded how fast this field has moved in a short period of time.
The Helsinki Corpus Festival was the only time I got to hear him speak. He presented a paper at ICAME 35 this year in Nottingham, but I didn’t get to see it, as I was presenting at the exact same time. :) Not exactly even competition, but it’s impressive that he never stopped being curious.
Thanks Ray for your comment. Here is a bit more on Geoffrey’s views on linguistics in an interview from 2007 at the University of Santiago de Compostela http://www.usc-vlcg.es/IntLeech.pdf. As a former visiting student in Lancaster I have to say that his legacy in creating a dynamic research community centred around research in corpus linguistics and his contribution to the ‘corpus revolution’ are more than impressive.
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