- Rebecca Posner (1929–2018)
Rebecca Reynolds hailed from a small mining village in County Durham but became a midlander when her family relocated to Nuneaton in the 1930s. From Nuneaton Girls' High School, she won an Open Exhibition in 1949 to Somerville College, Oxford. There, she read Modern Languages, graduated with a first in French and a distinction in the Postgraduate Diploma in Comparative Philology, and completed a doctorate on consonantal dissimilation in Romance under the tutelage of Alfred Ewert. An attachment to the Institut de phonétique in Paris and a post-doctoral fellowship at Yale completed a brilliant training and launched her as a professional academic with international credentials.
Following a period as a private researcher and later bye-fellow at Girton College, Cambridge, Rebecca was appointed Professor and Head of French at the University of Ghana, where she spent the years 1963 to 1965. The warmth and linguistic diversity of West Africa gave way to the more sedate charms of York, where she became Reader in Language at the new university and stayed for thirteen years until her election in 1978 to the Chair of the Romance Languages at Oxford and a fellowship at St Hugh's College. After nominal retirement in 1996 and elevation to the emeritate, she continued to publish for several more years and never ceased to take an active part in college life.
By the time of her arrival in York, Rebecca had published her first monograph, Consonantal Dissimilation in the Romance Languages (Oxford: Blackwell, 1961), several substantial pieces on Latin and Romance inflectional morphology, and The Romance Languages: A Linguistic Introduction (New York: Doubleday, 1970). Predictably, reviewers heaped praise on the recast doctorate and greeted her work of haute vulgarisation rather sniffily, but it was an instant success elsewhere and remained in print for many years. While at York, she undertook the revision of the classic Iorgu Iordan and John Orr manual, Introduction to Romance Linguistics: Its Schools and Scholars (Oxford: Blackwell, 1970), endorsed by Iordan himself as 'brilliant', before embarking on a major collaborative project to survey worldwide Trends in Romance Linguistics and Philology (The Hague: Mouton, 1980–82). The success of the first four volumes prompted a more focused sequel, Bilingualism and Linguistic Conflict in Romance (Berlin: Mouton De Gruyter, 1993), exploring how political debate and language activism can reshape attitudes, raise the status of undervalued varieties, and ultimately lead to the recognition of new languages.
In her inaugural lecture (On the Romance Languages (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980)) and in other autobiographical snippets, Rebecca admits candidly that she found language-learning relatively easy and chose to read Modern Languages [End Page 342] because it would leave her more time for other pursuits. Yet she worked hard. She once said that, as an undergraduate, she had tried to average forty hours per week of serious academic study and had found it surprisingly hard to sustain, even when some of the hours were allocated to reading pleasurably around tutorial topics, not least in her 'beloved' eighteenth century. What she did not do, either as a student or tutor, was rely on textbooks or academic digests. Why? The originals must be tackled sooner or later. So, much better to fling yourself and your charges in at the deep end and see who can swim, albeit with lifelines and generous help for those willing to make the effort.
That Rebecca might never have been a Romanist comes as a shock. For her doctorate she had set her heart on investigating West African languages, but was thwarted in her search for a supervisor and host department. Switching to comparative Romance could have been a pis aller without the sympathetic guidance of Alfred Ewert (newly appointed, enthusiastic, and trained in philology) and later André Martinet. Possibly the greatest fillip came from meeting Yakov Malkiel and being invited to write a series of incisive, often trenchant, review articles for Romance Philology, one of the two journals to which she remained a faithful contributor throughout her career, serving for long periods on their advisory and editorial boards. Romance Philology has recently published a full bibliography of her writings. The other journal, of course, is French Studies, for which...