Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Geoffrey Leech Obituary, Pierre Rycksman Obituary

Geoffrey Leech
Two men of letters died in August. Two men of letters debate their obituaries…
Prof. Lang: They were both 78.

Prof. Ling: Yes. Yes. So what else did they have in common?

Pierre Ryckmans
Prof. Lang: Language.

Prof. Ling: All human beings have language. What else?

Prof. Lang: Both had obituaries published widely.

Prof. Ling: What was different about them?

Prof. Lang: Well, Geoffrey Leech could see how language worked. He was good at describing systems. Pierre Ryckmans could see through rhetoric. He could tell us how millions of Chinese were duped by Mao.

Prof. Ling: I asked what was different about their obituaries.

Prof. Lang: Yes. Oh yes. Stylistics. Leech knew stylistics but his obituary wasn’t exactly stylish. Ryckmans didn’t study stylistics but his obituary was stylistically crafted. It’s important who you get to write your obituary.

Prof. Ling: Nevertheless, great men, both.

Examples from the Geoffrey Leech’s and Pierre Ryckmans’ obituaries:

“Geoff Leech was born in Gloucester in 1936. He studied at University College London for his BA, MA, and PhD, and taught there as a lecturer. He came to Lancaster in 1969 as one of the first language specialists in the English Department, and in 1974 he became the first Head of the new Linguistics Department, and its first Professor.”

“Writers choose pen names for many reasons. Pierre Ryckmans chose his—“Simon Leys”—to avoid being blacklisted by the Chinese authorities, who, he feared, would not appreciate his attempts to tell the world the truth about the horrors of Maoism and the Cultural Revolution. But his chosen surname contained a subtle clue as to who he really was. “Leys” was a homage to “René Leys”, a novel by the French author Victor Segalen, in which a Belgian teenager in old Peking regales his employer with tales of the hidden intrigues and conspiracies taking place within the imperial palace.”
The Economist, August 23rd, 2014.

“Geoff made major contributions to such fields as stylistics, (A Linguistic Guide to English Poetry [1969] and, with Mick Short, Style in Fiction [1981]), and semantics and pragmatics (Principles of Pragmatics [1983] remains a key text in the field, and his new book, The Pragmatics of Politeness, appeared just last week). He also contributed to the two major descriptive grammars of English, and many shorter, more accessible grammars for students and teachers. He is perhaps best known now as one of the founders of the field of corpus linguistics, the construction and study of large computerized datasets of language. This field has now become one of the major approaches to many linguistic and social science issues.”

“Mr Ryckmans predicted that, one day, the chaos of the Mao years would fade and that the Communist Party’s totalitarian grip would ease. Sure enough, these days even the party admits that the Cultural Revolution was a “disaster”, and that millions died in the famine that followed the Great Leap Forward, an earlier attempt at collectivisation. But the fundamental nature of the regime, he said, would not change. He was right about that, too.”
The Economist, August 23rd, 2014.

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