Joseph Wright (linguist)
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Joseph Wright Linguist

Joseph Wright
Joseph Wright
Born31 October 1855
Died27 February 1930(1930-02-27) (aged 74)
Academic background
Academic work
Main interestsGermanic languages
English dialects
Notable worksEnglish Dialect Dictionary
InfluencedJ. R. R. Tolkien

Joseph Wright FBA (31 October 1855 - 27 February 1930)[1] was an English philologist who rose from humble origins to become Professor of Comparative Philology at the University of Oxford.

Early life

Wright was born in Idle, near Bradford in the former West Riding of Yorkshire, the second son of Dufton Wright, a woollen cloth weaver and quarryman, and his wife Sarah Ann (née Atkinson).[1] He started work as a "donkey-boy" in a quarry around 1862, at the age of six,[] leading a donkey-drawn cart full of tools to the smithy to be sharpened. He later became a bobbin doffer - responsible for removing and replacing full bobbins - in a mill in Sir Titus Salt's model village of Saltaire in Yorkshire. Although Wright learned letters and numbers at the Salt's Factory School, he was unable to read a newspaper until he was 15. He later said of this time: "Reading and writing, for me, were as remote as any of the sciences."[2]

By now a wool-sorter earning a pound a week, after 1870 Wright became increasingly fascinated with languages, and began attending night school to study French, German and Latin, as well as maths and shorthand. At the age of 18, around 1874, he started his own night school, charging his colleagues twopence a week.[3]

By 1876 Wright had saved £40 and could afford a term's study at the University of Heidelberg. He walked to Heidelberg from Antwerp, a distance of more than 250 miles (400 km), to save money.[]

After returning to Yorkshire Wright continued his studies at the Yorkshire College of Science (later the University of Leeds) while working as a schoolmaster. A former pupil of Wright's recalled: "With a piece of chalk [he would] draw illustrative diagrams at the same time with each hand, and talk while he was doing it."[3]

Wright later returned to Heidelberg, and in 1885 he completed his PhD dissertation, Qualitative and Quantitative Changes of the Indo-Germanic Vowel System in Greek[2] under Hermann Osthoff.[]


In 1888, after his second return from Germany, Wright was offered a post at the University of Oxford by Professor Max Müller, and became a lecturer to the Association for the Higher Education of Women and deputy lecturer in German at the Taylor Institution.[3]

From 1891 to 1901 Wright was Deputy Professor and from 1901 to 1925 Professor of Comparative Philology at Oxford.[]

Wright 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 wrote a historical grammar of German.[]

Wright had a strong interest in English dialects. His book A Grammar of the Dialect of Windhill (1892)[4] was "the first grammar of its kind in England".[]

Wright's greatest achievement is considered to be 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 the dialects of spoken English in England 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, the world's oldest surviving dialect society. Wright had been offered a position at a Canadian university, which would have paid him an annual salary of 500 pounds, a very generous salary at the time, but he opted to stay in Oxford and finish the Dictionary without any financial backing from a sponsor.[] In the course of editing Dictionary (1898) Wright corresponded regularly with Thomas Hardy about the Dorset dialect.[5][6]

In 1925 Wright became the inaugural recipient of the British Academy's Biennial Prize for English Literature (now the Sir Israel Gollancz Prize), awarded for publications on Early English Language and Literature.[7]

Wright's papers are in the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford.[]

Personal life

In 1896 Wright married Elizabeth Mary Lea (1863-1958), with whom he co-authored his Old and Middle English Grammars. She also wrote a book, Rustic Speech and Folklore (Oxford University Press 1913), in which she refers to their walking and cycling journeys in the Yorkshire Dales, as well as various articles and essays.

The couple had two children, Willie Boy and Mary, both of whom died in childhood.[2]

Wright and his wife were known for their hospitality to their students. They often invited a dozen or more, both men and women, to their home for Yorkshire Sunday teas. On these occasions Wright performed his party trick of making his Aberdeen Terrier Jack lick his lips when Wright said the Gothic words for fig tree, smakka bagms.[8]

Wright believed that women were entitled to become university students, he believed that they should not be voting members of the university, saying that they were, "less independent in judgement than men and apt to run in a body like sheep".[3]

Although his energies were for the most part directed into his work, Wright also enjoyed gardening, and followed Yorkshire cricket and football teams.[2]

At the age of seventy-four Wright succumbed to pneumonia and died at his home, "Thackley", 119 Banbury Road, Oxford, on 27 February 1930. He was buried in Oxford.[9] His last word was "Dictionary".[2] In 1932 his widow published The Life of Joseph Wright.[10]


Wright had a significant influence on J. R. R. Tolkien and was one of his tutors at Oxford. Studying the Grammar of the Gothic Language (1910) with Wright seems to have been a turning point in Tolkien's life.[11] Writing to his son Michael in 1963, Tolkien reflected on his time studying with Wright:

Years before I had rejected as disgusting cynicism by an old vulgarian the words of warning given me by old Joseph Wright. 'What do you take Oxford for, lad?' 'A university, a place of learning.' 'Nay, lad, it's a factory! And what's it making? I'll tell you. It's making fees. Get that in your head, and you'll begin to understand what goes on.' Alas! by 1935 I now knew that it was perfectly true. At any rate as a key to dons' behaviour.[12]

Wright was greatly admired by Virginia Woolf, who wrote of him in her diary:

The triumph of learning is that it leaves something done solidly for ever. Everybody knows now about dialect, owing to his dixery.[13]

Wright was Woolf's inspiration for the character of "Mr Brook" in The Pargiters, an early draft of The Years (1937).[14]

In popular culture

In the 2019 biopic Tolkien Professor Wright is played by Derek Jacobi.


  1. ^ a b Kellett, Arnold (2004). "Joseph Wright". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 2011.
  2. ^ a b c d e Lunnon, Jenny (28 February 2008). "From Woollen Mills to Dreaming Spires". Oxford Mail. Retrieved 2011.
  3. ^ a b c d "Idle Scholar Who Brought Local Language to Book". Oxford Today. 22. 2010. Archived from the original on 14 August 2010. Retrieved 2011.
  4. ^ A Grammar of the Dialect of Windhill in the West Riding of Yorkshire: Illustrated by a Series of Dialect Specimens, Phonetically Rendered; with a Glossarial Index of the Words Used in the Grammar and Specimens. London: Kegan Paul, 1892
  5. ^ Chapman 1990, p. 33.
  6. ^ Firth 2014.
  7. ^ "Sir Israel Gollancz Prize". British Academy. Retrieved 2018.
  8. ^ Carpenter 1977, p. 64.
  9. ^ "Wright, Joseph". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved 24 May 2019.
  10. ^ Wright 1932.
  11. ^ Carpenter 1977, pp. 63-64.
  12. ^ Letter dated 1 November 1963, published in J. R. R. Tolkien, Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien, London: Allen & Unwin, 1981.
  13. ^ Fowler, Rowena (2002). "Virginia Woolf: Lexicographer" (PDF). English Language Notes. xxix. Retrieved 2011.
  14. ^ Snaith 2000, p. 109.


  • Holder, R. W. (2005). The Dictionary Men. Their lives and times. Bath University Press. ISBN 0-86197-129-9.
  • Simpson, Jacqueline; Roud, Steve (2000). A Dictionary of English Folklore. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0198607663. (extract)

External links

  This article uses material from the Wikipedia page available here. It is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.



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