David Abercrombie (1909-1992)

(Slightly adapted and corrected from 'Minding our language' which appeared in The Guardian newspaper 21st August 1992)

The millions who have seen the film My Fair Lady have all seen the words "Honour to David Abercrombie" in the credits but not even one in a million has been able to read them because they were in an obsolete form of phonetic spelling devised by the first great English phonetician of modern times, Henry Sweet. Shaw said there were "touches of Sweet" in Henry Higgins, but he certainly said this partly to avoid embarrassing the greatest British figure in phonetics at the time, Daniel Jones, who can't have been completely without misgivings at the tawdry sensationalist exaggerations involved in Shaw's portrayal of his Professor Higgins.

Jones was as much Shaw's model for Higgins as Sweet and, when the 1938 film of Pygmalion was made, Jones had been a professor of phonetics for the previous seventeen years – a title which Oxford never bestowed on Sweet. Jones directly advised Shaw, who no doubt deserved Sweet's "boundless contempt" for his ignorance of the subject. When it came to the filming, Jones provided props that obviously came from his department at University College, London, where at least one of them (a large vowel diagram) still has a place of honour.

Arguably the most distinguished of all Jones's pupils, David Abercrombie, died aged 82 on the 4th of July 1992. His father, Lascelles, was one of the most distinguished scholars and poets of his day. He held chairs of English literature at Leeds and London and had his Collected Verse published in 1930 in the Oxford University Press Standard Authors series (a distinction achieved during his lifetime by no-one else except Robert Bridges Poet Laureate from 1913). He was much admired for his speaking of poetry. His son David was the most elegant of writers on phonetics.

The eldest of Lascelles' three sons, David was born on December the 19th 1909. He was educated at the public school Liverpool College and then at Leeds University where he graduated in English with third-class honours and then registered to begin work for an MA on a topic in historical linguistics ("i-mutation") while living in London with his parents. His father – who served on the distinguished BBC Advisory Committee on Spoken English along with George Bernard Shaw – met his exact contemporary, Daniel Jones, at its meetings and told him of his son's interest in Jones's subject. Jones invited David to call on him and for the next seven years took him under his wing. The Leeds MA never materialised but Abercrombie got involved in a variety of other activities including the spelling reform interests of Robert Bridges, Basic English, the deciphering of Cretan scripts, the history of shorthand, the pronunciation of Latin and, not least, the teaching of English to native speakers of other languages. 

Jones had sent him to spend the two years as an assistant in Paris at a lycée there. While there he joined classes at the Phonetics Institute at the Sorbonne in his spare time. On his return he got his first full-time university post at the London School of Economics, helping their foreign students with their English. Just before the second world war, he joined a small stream of British language teachers who went to eastern Europe and later to Cyprus and Egypt. Like their diplomat colleagues, they figured in stories by writers including Lawrence Durrell and Olivia Manning. From 1938 to 1940, he was the Director of Studies at the Institute of English Studies in Athens. Before Greece fell, he moved on to Cyprus and ultimately to Egypt where, as had Robert Graves in his day, he became a lecturer in English at Cairo University besides also functioning as a radio announcer there.

After the war he went back to the LSE but within a couple of years he was appointed in 1947 to a lectureship in phonetics within the School of English at the University of Leeds. A year later he was invited to set up at Edinburgh what was then the only Department of Phonetics in the British Isles outside London. There he remained for 32 years, making Edinburgh justly famous for the high quality of phoneticians it produced. His Elements of General Phonetics (1967) was the most stylishly written of all introductions to the subject.

His other books were mainly collections of essays, notably on English rhythm. Not all his ideas received general acceptance but he always commanded the highest respect amongst his colleagues for the breadth of his interests, the balanced humanity of his outlook and the inspirational quality of his teaching. His pupils included several of the world's most distinguished practitioners of the subject, such as Peter Ladefoged, the Englishman (of Danish parentage) who long led a brilliant department at the University of California at Los Angeles (and who was also responsible for that "coded" compliment to Abercrombie in My Fair Lady) and John Laver, head of the Centre for Speech Technology Research at Edinburgh University.

Those who were privileged to know David Abercrombie could not fail to like him. It was possible to disagree with him on matters of theory or observation without in the least affecting cordial relations with him. Mary, his widow, shared the high regard and affection in which he was always held.