In memoriam Sir John Lyons

by Peter K. Austin (SOAS)

The Philological Society regrets to advise members that Vice-President Sir John Lyons passed away on 12 March 2020 at the age of 87 after a long period of ill health. Lyons grew up in Stretford, Lancashire, and won a scholarship to Christ’s College, Cambridge in 1950 where he read Classics. After national service he returned to Cambridge in 1956 to begin his PhD in Linguistics under W. Sidney Allen, moving to a lectureship at SOAS in 1957 (the same year he joined PhilSoc) and completing his PhD under R. H. Robins on ‘Some lexical sub-systems in the language of Plato’. In 1960 he went to Indiana University to work on machine translation and gave his first courses on general linguistics. From 1961 to 1964 he taught at Christ’s College and from 1964 to 1984 he was Professor of Linguistics at the Universities of Edinburgh and Sussex. Between 1965 and 1969 he was the founding editor of the Journal of Linguistics. His 1999 paper, published in our Transactions Vol 97 (‘Diachrony and synchrony in twentieth-century linguistic semantics: old wine in new bottles?’), reflects on aspects of his intellectual history, noting “both the Philological Society and the London School played a crucial role in my intellectual development … in what, as far as linguistics is concerned, were my formative years”.

John Lyons was a leading scholar in the field of semantics and pragmatics, and his textbooks Introduction to Theoretical LinguisticsSemantics (2 volumes), and Language, Meaning and Context are models of care, clarity and precision. He was a Fellow of the British Academy, the recipient of honorary degrees from UK and international universities, and in 1987 was knighted ‘for services to the study of linguistics’. In 2016, he was awarded the Neil and Saras Smith Medal for Linguistics by the British Academy ‘for his outstanding lifetime contribution to the field of linguistics’. After serving as Master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge, from 1985 he retired to France in 2000.

For those interested in an autobiographical account of Sir John Lyons, see Linguistics in Britain: Personal Histories by Keith Brown & Vivien Law, 2002.  Publications of the Philological Society 36. pp 170-199.

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