Harold Orton

1898 -1975

(Adapted with additions from the Journal of the International Phonetic Association Volume 5, No 2 of December 1975)

On the 7th March 1975 at Leeds the death occurred in his 77th year of one of the most distinguished of British scholars, Professor Emeritus Harold Orton. He was born on the 23rd of October in 1898 to a schoolmaster at Byers Green, a village in County Durham of which both his parents were natives. He attended King James I Grammar School at Bishop Auckland proceeding to Hatfield College of the University of Durham but leaving it in 1917 to enrol in the regiment the Durham Light Infantry in which he was commissioned. In the following year he was so severely wounded in the right arm as to make it unusable. A result of this was that he was invalided out of the army in 1919. I remember well the slight surprise on first meeting him that he was obliged to shake hands with his left hand.

He then went up to Merton College Oxford where became perhaps the most remarkable protégé of Henry Sweet's pupil Henry Cecil Wyld the outstanding historian of the English language and lexicographer. In days when the retention of a marked regional accent was yet to become unremarkable at Oxford, he acquired and ever after employed an elegant variety of the style of speech fashionable in those days, yet he could instantly and authentically revert to 'Pitmatic', as the local dialect of his childhood home is inscrutably known. He described it in his major non-collaborative publication The Phonology of a South Durham Dialect (1933). He appeared on television typically light-heartedly in the month before his death, the same month as saw the publication with Nathalia Wright of their admirable A Word Geography of England. The other great work he was senior editor of, The Linguistic Atlas of England, finally appeared in 1978.

These were fruits of his great life work, the Survey of English Dialects, planned in conjunction with the illustrious Swiss phonetician (the author of the famous Vademecum der Phonetik) Eugen Dieth and carried on, after the latter's death in 1956, by Orton. The Survey had as basis a meticulously prepared 1,300-item questionnaire of phonological, lexical and grammatical items ultimately applied at 313 carefully-chosen spaced out rural localities by nine trained fieldworkers over a period of eleven years. The Basic Materials acquired were published in a number of volumes between 1962 and 1971: every entry was transcribed in the International Phonetic Association's Alphabet in close harmony with its principles.

Before finally settling in 1946 into the post of Professor of English Language and Medieval Literature at Leeds University  he had spent several years on the staff of Uppsala University in Sweden until 1928 when he was appointed to a lectureship at King's College, Newcastle. He was made Head of the Department of English Language at Sheffield University in 1939 but secondment to the British Council interrupted that work until the end of the war.

Amomg various other things, he bore the chief responsibility for the excellent 1940 revision of the Ripman and Archer volume New Spelling which set out, with a good deal of useful statistical comment, the proposals of the Simplified Spelling Society. His official retirement in 1964 meant no diminution of his activities. For eight years he regularly taught the spring term at one or other of various American universities. In 1975 he was to have presided over the Eighth International Congress of Phonetic Sciences in August at Leeds had he lived till then. The Leeds Department of Phonetics which hosted that Congress had been set up in 1948 initially as much as anything else in order to provide training for his field workers.

Harold Orton will be remembered not only for his monumental scholarship but also for his kindly encouragement of younger generations, for his lively intellectual curiosity and his good humour and zest which abundantly stayed with him to the very end.