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Joshua Whatmough, professor of Comparative Philology, Emeritus, and former chairman of the Department of Linguistics, died Saturday at the age of 67 in his home in Winchester.
His death meant the loss of one of the most colorful figures Cambridge has known in this century. Whatmough was unmistakable on the street--a short, frosty-haired, ruddy-faced man, impeccably dressed, always sporting a fresh cornflower in his buttonhole, swinging a walking stick, and traveling with a jaunty briskness. "I am not mad." he once stated categorically, "only eccentric."
Chief among his eccentricities was a passion for speaking out in the lecture room on every conceivable topic. What he liked, he praised with elaborate encomiums, phrased in flawless English, seasoned with appropriate Latin or Greek quotations. What he disliked, he loathed and damned with vehemence, often using Arabic or Turkish oaths to communicate his emotion, frequently turning purple with rage.
Although his outspokenness made him good many enemies, he never was intimidated. "I often find myself in hot water," he used to say with obvious pleasure, "but I don't mind hot water--it never scalds me." And in many cases his out-rageous opinions changed Harvard for the better. Shortly after he arrived at the University in 1926, for example, he stirred up protests against the management of the University Library that eventually led to a reorganization of Widener's system.
Above all, it was at his irrepressible insistence that Harvard's diffuse studies of language were forged into a vigorous Department of Comparative Philology (the name became "Department of Linguistics" in 1951 to conform to current usage). His relentless emphasis on statistical method in linguistic analysis enabled this department to pioneer a mathematical approach to language that now promises to bring order into the filed. He ran the department singlehandedly as a benevolent tyrant from 1926 until his retirement last June.
Whatmough was a Lancashire man, educated at the Universities of Manchester and Cambridge before he began teaching Classics at the University College of North Wales. When President Lowell was looking for someone to fill a chair of Comparative Philology at Harvard, Whatmough was on leave from his post, visiting Egyptian University in Cairo. There he was trying to teach Latin in French (by government decree, instruction had to be in French) to Egyptians who spoke Arabic and English. He accepted Lowell's offer without delay.
Of Whatmough's many books Language: A Modern Synthesis (1956) was his best known; it became a popular paperback. His most scholarly work was a monumental Dialects of Ancient Gaul (1949) which was many years in preparation. Last May, he hinted that he planned to write an autobiography.
Shortly before his retirement, Whatmough talked to one of his last classes about what he would do this year. One of his plans, it seems, was to go to Alaska and study Aleut. "I'd really have to learn to ride a horse to do that properly," he mused. "and my friends tell me that would finish me." He paused a moment, then gave a roguish grin and said with finality, "But I think with my constitution, it
Funeral services for Joshua Whatmough will be held at 2 p.m. Wednesday in Memorial Church. The Rev. Wesley A. Mallery, assistant minister of the First Congregational Church in Winchester, will conduct the service. would finish the horse."
Whatmough is survived by his wife G. Verona (Friederich) Taylor, and by two children, Mrs. Frederick D. Greene of Winchester and J. Jeremy T. Whatmough of Dearborn, Mich
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