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 Joshua N. Whatmough (1897-1964) 


Philologist and professor, Joshua N. Whatmough was a world-renowned linguist. Born in Rochdale, Lancashire, United Kingdom in 1897, he studied Classics at the University of Manchester and Emmanuel College, Cambridge University. While completing his graduate studies, he worked as a lecturer in Classics at the University College of North Wales and Professor of Latin at Egyptian University in Cairo. Following his graduation from Cambridge in 1926, he relocated to the United States, where he began a nearly forty-year career as Professor of Comparative Philology at Harvard University. He became a naturalized American citizen in 1942.


At Harvard, Whatmough transformed the Department of Comparative Philology (today, the Department of Linguistics after it was renamed in 1951). A pioneer in his field, he applied the study of linguistics to mathematical theories, arguing that the evolution of dialects over time has a predictable, statistical regularity. He analyzed quantifiable patterns such as the frequency of words, syllables, and intonations to reconstruct how a given language might have sounded hundreds of years ago. The ability to decipher ancient languages was highly desired by the U.S. Army, who used Whatmough’s research to help break wartime communication codes. Following the end of hostilities, Whatmough was selected for service with the MFAA in Germany. He was assigned to the Military Government Detachment for Oberfranken and Mittelfranken as an administrative assistant to Monuments Man Capt. Kenneth H. Propst.


Whatmough returned to Harvard in 1946 and resumed his duties as Chair of the Department of Comparative Philology. A popular but tough professor, he was known for his eccentric dress, which included a polka-dot bow tie, walking stick, and fresh cornflower in his buttonhole. His outspoken nature helped incite a faculty-lead protest against the management of the University Library, which resulted in a reorganization of its long-held system. Universally respected, he was a visiting professor at institutions across the United States, including the University of Chicago, the University of California at Berkeley, Grinnell College, and the Lowell Institute. In 1963 he retired from Harvard as Professor Emeritus, nevertheless continuing his habit of rising at 4 a.m. to study the dialects of ancient Gaul and to work on his autobiography.


In addition to his many lectures, Whatmough was President of the Linguistic Society of America, Vice President of the Linguistic Circle of New York, Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, advisor on philology to Encyclopedia Britannica, and a member of the advisory council for Yenching University in Peiping, China. From 1951 until his death, he served as a representative to the Permanent International Committee of Linguists (CIPL) for UNESCO. His many publications include dozens of reviews and articles as well as Dialects of Ancient Gaul (1949) and Language: A Modern Synthesis (1956). He was editor of Harvard studies in Classical philology (1932-34 and 1941-48), associate editor of Classical philology (1945-48), and associate editor of Word (1947-63).


Joshua Whatmough died in Winchester, Massachusetts on April 25, 1964. His contributions to the study of linguistics continue to be memorialized today with the annual Joshua and Verona Taylor Whatmough Lecture at Harvard University.

Image Credit: artist unknown

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