Randolph Quirk

Randolph Quirk is Quain Professor of English Language and Literature at University College, London.

Incriminating English

Randolph Quirk, 24 September 1992

Among various worries I have about the degree subject English, the most serious is the decline (to near vanishing point in many universities) of historical language study. One accepts, of course, that there is an awful lot else to claim the attention of teachers and taught; that the literature of the past two hundred years alone is more than enough challenge for the three short years of undergraduate life. One accepts, too, that things were not helped by a tradition in teaching the history of the language that was more than a little offputting, even for those who would spurn any passing passions for ‘relevance’. Preoccupation with Germanic comparative philology some times failed even to get the starred forms of proto-English across the North Sea before the course ended. Even the faster and less doggedly traditional teachers were liable to get bogged down in the phonology of Middle English dialects and the mysteries of ‘ash one’ and ‘ash two’.

1984 and ‘1984’

Randolph Quirk, 16 February 1984

About thirty miles off the Turkish coast, and just south-east of Nikaria, in the Dodecanese, there is a Greek island locally known as Patmo. I begin with that geomorphic truth in order to demonstrate a non-trivial aspect of textual structure – namely, that while the last sentence of a discourse is measurably predictable, the first is not. Tradition has it that it was in or on Patmo or Patmos that St John the Divine saw the Apocalypse – a Greek word meaning the disclosure of long-term planning or the shape of things to come. Now there is much in St John’s Revelation that I would like to talk about, but I will confine myself to the emphasis upon the millennium; and the point that Satan would be let loose on the world when the thousand-year date was reached. This had an enormous impact upon the theology, the imagination and indeed the politics of the century (and more especially of the half-century) preceding the year 1000 AD. In this country, for example, the ill-starred reign of Ethelred was paralysed almost no less by the Viking incursions than by the oppressive warnings of the clergy (including Ethelred’s own Bishop of London, Wulfstan) that these things must be – so that the millennial apocalypse be fulfilled.–

Simon Agonistes

Randolph Quirk, 5 November 1981

How do you measure literacy? Hardly – without distorting language in a way that could itself be called illiterate – by quoting the fustian prose or mixed metaphors of a writer you dislike. How do you measure decline in literacy? Despite his subtitle, John Simon seems to sidestep this one completely. As well he might. Bombastic English has been vigorously deplored since the time of Sir Thomas More, and it would be difficult to demonstrate that there was relatively more (or less) of it around today. Bad spelling is certainly no measure. As a popular touchstone of literacy standards, it has a scarcely longer history than compulsory education.

Public Words

Randolph Quirk, 19 February 1981

There is a path in the rather dense forest of linguistics that respectable academics have been rather shy of treading in the past fifty years. This has not been so much because of the briars and potholes as because they haven’t liked the direction in which it was heading, they haven’t liked the footprints they could recognise, and above all, perhaps, because they have preferred to follow in the wake of contemporary trail-blazers claiming they were off to somewhere new. Not that the track sign-posted ‘Towards a Better Language’ has been deserted: far from it. Yet another reason for its unattractiveness to the fastidious professional has been that it has been tramped enthusiastically by a stream of people whom he has seen less as explorers than as amateur do-gooding missionaries. With a pretty divided sense of mission at that.


Randolph Quirk, 25 October 1979

English lexicography knocks Johnnie Walker into a tricuspidal fedora. Over four hundred years, and going stronger than ever.

Noam’s Ark

Walter Nash, 25 October 1990

Die Zwitscher-Maschine is the title of a picture by Paul Klee, and a most beguiling picture it is: beaky, joky, reticular line-drawing on washes of demurest blue and rose, a sort of grave...

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Only God speaks Kamassian

Walter Nash, 7 January 1988

In the third book of Gulliver’s Travels there is a gobbledygook machine. Designed by the ingenious academicians of Lagado, it consists of a frame filled with vocables that can be shuffled...

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Who whom?

Christopher Ricks, 6 June 1985

Trust a Director of Freshman Rhetoric to say that ‘the study of language is inherently interesting.’ He would, wouldn’t he? He trusts so. This big batch of language-books brings...

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Roy Harris, 21 February 1985

On 10 May 1933 an undergraduate at St Hilda’s College, Oxford, wrote in her diary a description of the clothes she was wearing on that sultry summer’s day. The description includes...

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What we say when

Adam Morton, 1 April 1983

This is the third collection of Randolph Quirk’s occasional pieces to appear in ten years. Like its predecessors, it’s a good read: each essay is short and its argument easy to...

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