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  • John Algeo, A Life with Language:In Memoriam
  • William A. Kretzschmar Jr. (bio)

John Algeo died on October 13th, 2019, a month short of his 89th birthday. He had been living for some time near his daughter in Kentucky and had not been well enough to be active in the field in recent years. However, those of us who knew him remember well his many achievements in the study of the English language.

Algeo was born in St. Louis, Missouri. After serving in the Korean War, he finished a bachelor's degree in Education at the University of Miami and then an MA and PhD (1960) in English at the University of Florida, where he worked with Thomas Pyles. Algeo wrote that he had first "met" Pyles, though not in person, when he encountered Pyles's book Words and Ways of American English (1952) as an undergraduate at Miami and that that experience took him to Florida for graduate school (Algeo 1981). He wrote that Pyles's writing was "marvelous, witty, captivating" and that "[e]ven now, more than twenty-five years later, I remember clearly the delight that book gave me, the sense of being engaged in wise and sophisticated conversation with a mind that one could only admire" (1981, 285). Many of us would say the same things about John Algeo.

Algeo was an instructor at Florida State University for two years and then became an assistant professor at the University of Florida in 1961 and a full professor there in 1970. The following year he moved to the [End Page 221] University of Georgia, where he stayed until he retired in 1994. He was Head of the English Department at Georgia from 1975 until 1979 and continued to be a major figure there in both English and the fledgling Linguistics Program until his retirement. The English Department at the time was one of the principal American centers for the study of the English language, having no fewer than six faculty members in the area when I arrived there in 1986. Algeo was clearly the leader of the group. He also led the interdepartmental Linguistics Program for a time, until it was relocated as a part of the Department of Anthropology and Linguistics (a coup by some of his colleagues while Algeo was out of the country—after that shock he no longer participated).

Algeo is perhaps best known for his book, The Origins and Development of the English Language (ODEL), which through many editions has been one of the two best-selling history of English textbooks of its time (with Baugh and Cable, A History of the English Language, most recently the sixth edition, 2012). These two books are primarily distinguished by the abundance of external history in Baugh and Cable and the focus on internal history in ODEL. Thomas Pyles wrote the first two editions of ODEL himself in 1964 and 1971. Algeo collaborated with Pyles in 1970 on a different but equally fine book, English: An Introduction to Language, and beginning with the third edition of ODEL (1982) Algeo carried on as co-author after the death of Pyles in 1980. After a fourth edition in 1993, Algeo changed publishers for the fifth edition in 2004 and sixth edition in 2009. For the seventh and final edition of 2013, he recruited Carmen Butcher as co-author. When Pyles and Algeo were producing ODEL in the last decades of the twentieth century, it was strikingly different from the more historical treatments of the time, like Baugh and Cable, in that it brought linguistics to the fore. Thus John's participation in the Linguistics Program as well as in English at Georgia. He was a conservative scholar—he once told me, "be not the first by whom new things are tried"—but it was clear by 1970 that linguistics would be central for the rest of his career. His work on the history of English led naturally to his role as editor of The Cambridge History of the English Language, Vol. 6: English in North America (2001), which includes chapters by half a dozen present and past members of the Dictionary Society of North America.

Algeo also...


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