02 June, 2012

Joseph Wright

Joseph Wright was an English philologist who rose from humble origins to become Professor of Comparative Philology at Oxford University.

Wright was born in Thackley, near Bradford in Yorkshire, the seventh son of Dufton Wright, a woollen cloth weaver and quarry man, and his wife Sarah Ann (née Atkinson). He started work as a "donkey-boy" in a quarry at the age of six, leading a donkey-drawn cart full of tools to the smithy to be sharpened. He later became a "doffer" – responsible for removing and replacing full bobbins – in a Yorkshire mill in Sir Titus Salt's model village. Although he learnt his 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".

By now a wool-sorter earning £1 a week, Wright became increasingly fascinated with languages and began attending night-school to learn French, German and Latin, as well as maths and shorthand. At the age of 18 he even started his own night-school, charging his colleagues twopence a week.

By 1876 he had saved £40 and could afford a term's study at the University of Heidelberg, although he walked from Antwerp to save money.

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 recalls that, "with a piece of chalk [he would] draw illustrative diagrams at the same time with each hand, and talk while he was doing it".

He later returned to Heidelberg and in 1885 completed a Ph.D. on Qualitative and Quantitative Changes of the Indo-Germanic Vowel System in Greek.

In 1888, after his return from Germany, Wright was offered a post at Oxford University 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.

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

He specialized 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 published a historical grammar of German.

He had a strong interest in English dialects and claimed that his 1893 Windhill Dialect Grammar was "the first grammar of its kind in England." Undoubtedly, his greatest achievement was 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 English dialect speech 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, which claims to be the world's oldest surviving dialect society. He was the author of the Dialect Test. Wright had been offered a position at a Canadian university, who would have paid him an annual salary of £500 – a very generous salary at the time. However, Wright opted to stay in Oxford and finish the Dialect Dictionary without any financial backing from a sponsor.
Wright's papers are in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

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

He died of pneumonia on 27 February 1930.

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