Roy Harris, 1931-2015

One of the most radical recent thinkers about language and communication has died

March 12, 2015

Roy Harris was born on 24 February 1931 and educated at Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital School in Bristol and St Edmund Hall, Oxford.

After serving as a lecteur at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris (1956-57), he worked as an assistant lecturer (1957-58) and then lecturer (1958-60) at the University of Leicester before returning to Oxford for most of the rest of his career, notably as professor of the Romance languages (1976-77) and then, from 1978, the university’s first professor of general linguistics, becoming emeritus on retirement. He also took up shorter-term teaching posts in Boston, Hong Kong and Paris and visiting professorships in New Delhi and New York.

At the heart of Professor Harris’ research was an attack on what he called “the language myth”. This is the seemingly common-sense view that language communities share a uniform code to match mental concepts with words, so that ideas can be transferred direct from one brain to another. In reality, he argued, words and other linguistic units are not freestanding signs with permanent meanings but can be understood in context only by the people using them. Such views, developed into the philosophy of “integrationism”, were set out in detail in a celebrated trilogy consisting of The Language-Makers (1980), The Language Myth (1981) and The Language Machine (1987).

Building on these foundations, Professor Harris then applied his core ideas to the nature of writing – in The Origin of Writing (1986), La sémiologie de l’écriture (1994) and Rethinking Writing (2000) – before adopting a similar approach to art, history, science and psychology. His arguments drew as many critics as admirers, and particularly pained the linguistics establishment, but they are still being pursued and developed by the International Association for the Integrational Study of Language and Communication, which he helped found in 1987.

Professor Harris “approached every linguistic argument with a fearsome forensic ability”, recalled Michael Toolan, professor of English language at the University of Birmingham, yet “in personal relations with students and visitors he was always generous, often charming and witty, and patient with slower brains grappling with hard ideas in good faith…He was enormously well-read, far beyond linguistics, but this knowledge was never paraded for effect: it was simply there in the background, informing his sometimes disturbingly unorthodox arguments.”

Professor Harris died of cardiovascular problems on 9 February and is survived by his wife Rita, a daughter and a grandson.

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