FIRTH, John Rupert. Keighley, Yorkshire 17.6.1890 — Linfield, Sussex 14.12.1960. British Linguist and Phonetician. Professor in London. From Yorkshire, school at Keighley. Studied history at Leeds University (M.A. 1913). A brief time Lecturer in History at City of Leeds Training College, then joined Indian Educational Service in 1914, just before the war. In 1914-18 in military service in India, Afghanistan and Africa. In 1920-28 Professor of English at University of the Punjab in Lahore. Returned to England, he was from 1928 Senior Lecturer at Department of Phonetics, London University College, until 1938. At the same time Special Lecturer in the Phonetics of Indian Languages at Oxford and in 1932-38 part-time Lecturer in Linguistics at S.O.A.S., also taught sociology of languages at London School of Economics (befriended there with Br. Malinowski). In 1937-38 fifteen months in India studying on Gujarati and Telugu. From 1938 at S.O.A.S., first as a Senior Lecturer, then from 1940 Reader in Linguistics and Indian Phonetics, from 1941 head of Department of Phonetics and Linguistics and from 1944 Professor of General Linguistics (a new chair) at S.O.A.S./University of London. In 1956 emeritus. In 1957 in Pakistan as adviser in linguistics, in 1958 Visiting Lecturer at Edinburgh. In his last years he was often ill, but died suddenly. Hon. Dr. of Laws 1959 Edinburgh.
Firth was a linguist and phonetician, who sought his material from Indian languages. The contextual theory of meaning and prosodic analysis in phonology were central themes for him. In retirement he worked in linguistic analysis of some Shakespeare’s plays. He did some work about the history of linguistics, but in comparative linguistics he was not interested at all. He is said to have had a difficult nature.
Publications: Speech. 79 p. L. 1930; The Tongues of Men. 160 p. L. 1937; The Tongues of Men and Speech. 211 p. L. 1964.
– “The technique of Semantics”, TPS 1935, 36-72; “Alphabets and Phonology in India and Burma”, BSOS 8, 1935/37, 517-546; “The English School of Phonetics”, TPS 1946, 92-132; many other articles in BSOAS, TPS, etc.
– “Indian Languages”, Encyclopedia Britannica 1956.
– “Phonetic Observations on Gujarati”, BSOAS 20, 1957 (Turner Vol.), 231-241.
– Papers in linguistics, 1934–1951. 233 p. L. 1957; Selected Papers of J.R. Firth, 1952-59. 209 p. Ed. by F. R. Palmer. L. 1968.
Sources: J. Léon, Encyclop. of Lang. and Ling. (online); *K. K. Raja, JOR 28, 1961, 164; R.H. Robins, *Language 37, 1961, 191-200 (republ. in Sebeok 1966:2, 543-554), also in Lex. gramm. 1996, 297-300 and *Oxford D.N.B.; N. C. Scott, BSOAS 24, 1961, 413-418 (with bibliography and photo); Wikipedia with photo; not in Who Was Who –1960.