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Terence (Terry) F Mitchell

Colleagues will be very sorry to learn of the death of Emeritus Professor T F (Terry) Mitchell, former Professor and Head of the Department of Linguistics and Phonetics, on 1 January 2007, aged 87.

Professor Mitchell was a West Country man, born in Devon and educated at Torquay Grammar School, but his outstanding career in linguistics was to take him from these origins to the many corners of the globe as he travelled in the pursuit of knowledge and, as his expertise grew, also in its dissemination to scholars worldwide.

After graduating from University College London with a brilliant first in French and Spanish in 1940, and an abiding affection for France and Spain, Terry Mitchell, along with many of his contemporaries, was caught up in the War. He was to spend six years serving his country, in India, Burma and the Middle East, and was able to benefit from the opportunities this presented to broaden his interest in linguistics and to study further languages, particularly Urdu and Sindhi.

Once discharged as a very youthful major in 1946, he went on to take up an appointment at the School of Oriental and African Studies, where he began the lifes work for which he will be best remembered, the study of written and, in particular, spoken Arabic. It was there, too, that he studied Berber and was influenced by J R Firth, the most celebrated of British linguists; an influence which would continue to be manifest throughout his career. Indeed, it is a measure of the international reputation he gained that, as time progressed, he would increasingly be referred to as the natural heir to Firth, his contributions to the scholarship of their field rivalling those of the great man himself.

Terry Mitchell remained at the SOAS until 1964, when he joined the University of Leeds as Professor of Contemporary English. Despite his publication of a number of perspicacious papers on his native language, however, he never felt that this title accurately reflected either the breadth or the true focus of his scholarship, and so in 1966 it was transmuted to Professor of English Language and General Linguistics. Committed, diligent and energetic, a stalwart of a large number of University committees as well as an outstanding scholar, world-class in every sense, Terry Mitchell rose to the position of Chairman of the School of English by 1967, and served as such until 1970, a role in which his unique blend of academic prestige, scrupulous fair mindedness and fellow-feeling were invaluable. But his passionate belief in the importance of linguistics as a separate discipline led him to champion the cause of a separate linguistics department. This was duly established in 1971 with Terry Mitchell as its first Head. Under his guidance the new department thrived, merging with the much older Department of Phonetics to become the Department of Linguistics and Phonetics in 1978, of which he was Head until his retirement in 1980.

Professor Mitchell made a significant and lasting contribution to scholarship at the University of Leeds, but his even greater legacy is his outstanding contribution to the discipline of linguistics across both geographical and political barriers. During his academic career he travelled extremely widely throughout the USA, the Middle East and Europe, including visits behind the Iron Curtain, to speak at conferences and congresses; to collaborate with colleagues and accept visiting Professorships internationally; to contribute to teaching and scholarship overseas and, on occasion, to evaluate the standards of international linguistics provision, most notably for the American University in Cairo. He was an active member of a number of learned societies and professional bodies in addition to his University and scholarly commitments, including, at various times, membership of the National Committee on Research and development in Modern Languages, the Council of the Philological Society, the English Teaching Advisory Committee of the British Council, the Arts Sub-Committee of the UGC (the first time that his subject had achieved representation on this body), the DES Studentship Selection Committee, the editorial board of the Journal of Linguistics and the editorship (for fifteen years) of the periodical Archivum Linguisticum. In 1979 he was elected to corresponding membership of the Saxon Academy of Sciences at Leipzig. He produced eminent publications on the Romance languages and, most notably of all, his esteemed body of work on written and spoken Arabic, markedly different in approach to that of traditionalist Arabic studies in the UK, which included a standard textbook on writing Arabic as well as the first textbook on colloquial spoken Arabic. It was this interest which was to lead to his substantial research project aimed at describing Educated Spoken Arabic in Egypt and the Levant, a project to which he was still devoting his time and considerable application even into his retirement.

It has been said of Terry Mitchell that he was a linguist who spoke languages as well as spoke about them. In his inaugural lecture (which included an elegant and illuminating analysis of the phrase hot buttered toast), he commented that rigour is not to be equated with rigidity, since language was constantly evolving in exciting ways, and this vibrancy and enthusiasm was communicated to both colleagues and students, who held him in high regard not just for his formidable academic reputation, but for his sheer love of his subject, and for his thoroughly honourable personal qualities. Writing to congratulate him on the occasion of his 85th birthday, the President of the Saxon Academy of Sciences noted that although by that time, as Hamlet put it, agehas clutched us in his steps, nothing could rob Professor Mitchell of his eminent lifes work and the permanent place that his scholarship gained him in world linguistics. He will be remembered with enormous respect by scholars and students worldwide, and missed by friends and colleagues alike.

Professor Mitchell is survived by his wife and by their children and grandchildren, one of whom continues the family's association with Leeds as a current student.