Larry Trask was one of the foremost experts on the Basque
language, and one of the world's best-known linguist
s, with a high profile from his participation in Internet discussion groups. He was a fountain of good sense
, and solid facts, and often mordantly entertaining with it. With his death at 59 we have lost an inspiring figure too early.
His precise reconstructions of the ancestral form of Basque were in sharp contrast to the vagueness and clutching at coincidences that he attacked in the small minority of linguists and the rather larger number of amateurs who have tried to connect Basque further afield. There are only two such attempts that have even any intellectual respectability: to the ancient language of Spain called Iberian, and in the Dene-Caucasian grouping with North Caucasian, Burushaski, Sino-Tibetan, and Na-Dene. He put forward convincing arguments about how untenable these were.
Larry did not begin in linguistics. Born on 10 November 1944 in Olean in the wilderness of westernmost New York state, amid deer and black bear, he studied chemistry at Rensselaer and Brandeis, taking an M.A. there. With the Peace Corps he went to Turkey, and taught at Ankara for a year, until the military took over the campus and he was discreetly informed that as an American he would not survive if he stayed.
From 1970 he lived in England. It began as a holiday but he went on to do a Ph.D. in Basque at SOAS in London. After that he taught first at the Polytechnic of Central London, then the University of Liverpool, and since 1988 the University of Sussex in Brighton, where he stayed until the end of his life.
Among his writings are The History of Basque (1996), the best survey of the language in English. He was made an honorary member of the Euzkaltzaindia, the Basque Academy, in 2003. He wrote (as R.L. Trask) a number of general introductions to language, linguistics, and punctuation, including A Dictionary of Phonetics and Phonology; The Penguin Guide to Punctuation; and Student's Dictionary of Language and Linguistics. He was also an adviser to the OED, and wrote widely on historical linguistics. He argued against Noam Chomsky's theory of Universal Grammar.
Larry Trask died in Hove on 27 March 2004, from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a condition he'd suffered for two years; he was supported by his wife Jan.
I knew Larry from discussions on the Indoeuropean and Nostratic mailing lists. He was full of knowledge about Basque, of course, and could always explain why a vaguely proposed Basque connexion was implausible or impossible; but he was also expert generally, and was one of the three or four on those lists who most inspired me with an understanding of how important it is to be accurate and factual. To the extent that I am, I owe much of it to Larry Trask, as I am sure do many who have participated in Internet discussions where he was involved.
Home page: http://www.cogs.susx.ac.uk/users/larryt/
An example of his style: a review of Baker's Atoms of Language: http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/trask.html
Guardian interview with him: http://www.guardian.co.uk/life/interview/story/0,12982,984721,00.html
University of Sussex obituary: http://www.sussex.ac.uk/linguistics/news1062.html
Linguist List obituary: http://linguistlist.org/issues/15/15-1055.html