John Rupert Firth  

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John Rupert Firth (June 17, 1890 in Keighley, Yorkshire – December 14, 1960 in Lindfield, West Sussex), commonly known as J. R. Firth, was an English linguist and a leading figure in British linguistics during the 1950s. He was Professor of English at the University of the Punjab from 1919–1928. He then worked in the phonetics department of University College London before moving to the School of Oriental and African Studies, where he became Professor of General Linguistics, a position he held until his retirement in 1956.


Contributions to linguistics

His work on prosody, which he emphasised at the expense of the phonemic principle, prefigured later work in autosegmental phonology. Firth is noted for drawing attention to the context-dependent nature of meaning with his notion of 'context of situation'. In particular, he is known for the famous quotation:

You shall know a word by the company it keeps (Firth, J. R. 1957:11)

Firth developed a particular view of linguistics that has given rise to the adjective 'Firthian'. Central to this view is the idea of polysystematism. David Crystal describes this as:

an approach to linguistic analysis based on the view that language patterns cannot be accounted for in terms of a single system of analytic principles and categories ... but that different systems may need to be set up at different places within a given level of description.

His approach can be considered as resuming that of Malinowski's anthropological semantics, and as a precursor of the approach of semiotic anthropology. Anthropological approaches to semantics are alternative to the three major types of semantics approaches: linguistic semantics, logical semantics, and General semantics. Other independent approaches to semantics are philosophical semantics and psychological semantics.

The 'London School'

As a teacher in the University of London for more than 20 years, Firth influenced a generation of British linguists. The popularity of his ideas among contemporaries gave rise to what was known as the 'London School' of linguistics. Among Firth's students, the so-called neo-Firthians were exemplified by Michael Halliday, who was Professor of General Linguistics in the University of London from 1965 until 1987.

Firth encouraged a number of his students, who later became well known linguists, to carry out research on a number of African and Oriental languages. T. F. Mitchell worked on Arabic and Berber, Frank R. Palmer on Ethiopean languages, including Tigre, and Michael Halliday on Chinese. Some other students whose native tongues were not English also worked with him and that enriched Firth's theory on prosodic analysis. Among his influential students were the Arab linguists Ibrahim Anis and Tammam Hassan and Kamal Bashir . Firth got many insights from work done by his students in Semitic and Oriental languages so he made a great departure from the linear analysis of phonology and morphology to a more of syntagmatic and paradigmatic analysis, where it is important to distinguish between the two levels of phonematic units (equivalent to phone (phonetics)) and prosodies (equivalent to features like "nasalization", "velarization" etc.). Prosodic analysis paved the way to autosegmental phonology, though many linguists, who do not have a good background on the history of phonology, do not acknowledge.

Selected publications

  • Speech (1930) London: Benn's Sixpenny Library.
  • The Tongues of Men (1937) London: Watts & Co.
  • Papers in Linguistics 1934–1951 (1957) London: Oxford University Press.

See also

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