John Algeo (1931-2019), Alumni Foundation Distinguished Professor, Head of the Department of English, and Director of Linguistics

A memorial written by Fredric Dolezal

With sadness and a great feeling of loss we mark the death of Emeritus Professor John Algeo, Professor of English 1971-1994, who died October 13, 2019 in Bowling Green, Kentucky. He was born November 12, 1930 in St. Louis, Missouri.

Professor Algeo, an internationally respected author of many books and articles, directed the academic work of numerous students: covering a wide range of subjects: these included undergraduate honor’s essays, master’s theses, and doctoral dissertations. Throughout his tenure at the University of Georgia he gladly taught all that he learned, and published upon throughout his career, including popular courses on English Grammar, History of the English Language, and Fantasy Literature – a subset of what he called speculative fiction (“The basic subject of speculative fiction is the human spirit and how it becomes whole”). Professor Algeo assumed significant leadership roles within the university and the scholarly community at large: among these are, Head of the Department of English; Director of the Linguistics Program; President of the Dictionary Society of North America; President of the American Name Society; national President of the Theosophical Society of America; editor of American Speech, and in collaboration with his wife Adele special editor of and contributor to “Among the New Words” – a long standing feature of the journal American Speech.

The introductory statement on the departmental website precisely expresses all that Professor Algeo valued in his work and life: he developed and drew from the “full range of linguistic tools, historical knowledge, and interpretive experience …” that informed his “sympathetic participation in the verbal worlds of other times and places.” His work on the English language and literature had (and still has) a world-wide appreciative audience of scholars and teachers. He made major contributions to the study of the English language and literature, especially on the nexus of American and British English, neologisms, and the structure and varieties of English. It is not surprising then that Professor Algeo gathered faculty in the department to pursue interests within the domain of English Language Studies that included historians of literature, and of languages, folklorists, proverb scholars, linguists, dialectologists, lexicographers and, of course, grammarians.  By the time of his retirement, the English Language Studies Area had a membership of ten or more faculty whom he brought together to meet regularly in committee meetings and for informal lunchtime discussions at the faculty dining hall.

Faculty and students who had the pleasure of listening and talking with Professor Algeo might be treated at times with a twinkle in his eye. It is a twinkle that many times proceeded a sharply wry but jovial comment or riposte to one’s opinion or carefully worked out ideas. We can recognize that very human presence in Professor Algeo’s scholarly work as well as his publications meant for a broader audience of educated readers. For instance, in his “Linguistics: Where Do We Go from Here?” he takes a detour to remark upon a 1954 article “Revolution in Grammar” written by Nelson Francis: ”Although there are those who find Darwin, Engels, and the ilk of Francis all equally objectionable, and who conclude that there must be some great conspiracy between evolution, communism, and linguistics to unsettle the state of things as they are, I am not going to worry about those who do not know a hawk from a handsaw and who prefer to ignore whatever they are ignorant of.”

His wry insight is evident in a later article, “The American Language and Its British Dialect,” in which Professor Algeo quotes the current Prince of Wales who opined, “We must act now to ensure that English—and that to my way of thinking, means English English—maintains its position as the world language.”  John Adams, Algeo notes, wrote that “English is destined to be … more generally the language of the world than Latin … or French.” Algeo then offers this conclusion: “John Adams was as broad-minded and as forward-looking as Prince Charles is backward … English [as a world language] has ceased to belong to either America or, whatever the Prince may suppose, England.”

In a discipline of many camps and factions Professor Algeo formed his approach and ideas of deep and wide scope based on his careful study of every school of thought from Dionysius Thrax to Noam Chomsky and beyond. As a faculty member in the English Department he worked in local, national and international domains to support and expand the teaching and study of the English language as a theoretical, pedagogical and humanistic pursuit. Professor Algeo’s life’s work remains an important contribution to developing our understanding and appreciation of the diverse literatures of English and the ever-expanding variety of world Englishes.

In Memoriam
John Algeo (1930-2019), A Life with Language 
by Dr. William Kretzschmar, Harry and Jane Willson Professor in the Humanities

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. 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 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 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. John was clearly the leader of this 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 John was out of the country--after that shock he no longer participated).

John 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 6th ed., 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, and it was largely this that led to 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 DSNA members.

Algeo also participated greatly in service to the profession. Members of this society will know that he was DSNA president from 1995 to 1997 and was elected Fellow of the society in 1999. He was president of the American Name Society in 1984. His service to the American Dialect Society was still greater. He was the editor of American Speech for thirteen years (1969-1982) and served as president of the society in 1979.  He also edited "Among the New Words" for American Speech for another decade (1987-1997), a role that featured his interest in lexicography. At the same time, he began a long-term interest in Briticisms to accompany his work on American vocabulary, culminating in his book British or American English? A Handbook of Word and Grammar Patterns (2006). This interest appeared before DSNA members in his 1987 article, "A Dictionary of Briticisms," in this journal. Algeo's service as an editor for American Speech and "Among the New Words" shaped the profession in ways that we still can note, including the professional appearance of the journal and the now-long-running Word of the Year event at the annual meeting of the American Dialect Society. Algeo also won prestigious Guggenheim and Fulbright fellowships and served as a visiting professor in Germany.

Another of Algeo's services to the profession involved me. In the early 1980s the National Endowment for the Humanities asked him for an evaluation of Raven McDavid's Linguistic Atlas Projects, which NEH had funded. Algeo was supportive and felt that the Atlas could break through some of its logjam of paper with the use of computers. Thus my assignment from McDavid in 1982 was to figure out how to do Atlas work on computer, something that continues to occupy me to this day. When McDavid died in 1984, Algeo was instrumental in bringing the Atlas project to the University of Georgia, which was then rapidly improving its scholarly stature. He thought that I could computerize the project and wrap it up quickly, an idea in which he was disappointed for a while, but he later came to appreciate the Atlas as a long-term monitor of and source of information about American speech. Algeo’s NEH report and later willingness to accept the Atlas from Chicago changed my life and saved something of value for Georgia and the profession.

Through all of these accomplishments, John Algeo was accompanied by his wife, Adele. She was not just a wife and mother at home but worked right alongside John in his academic pursuits. They met in an Old English class at the University of Florida, and their collaboration continued until Adele’s death in 2010. Beyond language and linguistics, John was a life member of the Theosophical Society, which he served as president in 1993 and whose journal, Quest, he edited starting in 1995. He published the book The Power of Thought (2001), an adaptation of a book by Annie Besant, an early theosophist. John also liked fantasy literature. He was a vegetarian when I knew him: he loved my wife Claudia's recipe for vegetable lasagna. What we sometimes forget about influential scholars is that they are more than the sum of their books and articles, they have lives, too. I am glad that I--along with so many people in DSNA, ADS, ANS, and the Theosophical Society-- got to share some of John's. Requiescat in pace.

References

Algeo, John. 1981. "In Memoriam: Thomas Pyles, 5 June 1905-25 April 1980".  American Speech 56: 285-287.
Algeo, John. 1987. A Dictionary of Briticisms. Dictionaries 9: 164-178.
Algeo, John, ed. 2001. The Cambridge History of the English Language, Vol. 6: English in North America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Algeo, John. 2006. British or American English? A Handbook of Word and Grammar Patterns. Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press.
Algeo, John. 2009. The Origins and Development of the English Language. 6th ed. Boston: Wadsworth.
Algeo, John, and Carmen Butcher. 2013. The Origins and Development of the English Language. 7th ed. Boston: Wadsworth Cengage.
Algeo, John, and Shirley Nicholson. 2001. The Power of Thought: A Twenty-First Century Adaptation of Annie Besant's Thought Power. Wheaton, IL: Quest.
Algeo, John, and Thomas Pyles. 2004. The Origins and Development of the English Language. 5th ed. Boston: Wadsworth.
Baugh, Albert, and Thomas Cable. 2012.  A History of the English Language. 6th ed. London: Routledge.
Pyles, Thomas. 1952. Words and Ways of American English. New York: Random House.
Pyles, Thomas. 1964. The Origins and Development of the English Language. New York: Harcourt Brace World.
Pyles, Thomas. 1971. The Origins and Development of the English Language. 2nd ed. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Pyles, Thomas, and John Algeo. 1970. English: An Introduction to Language. New York: Harcourt Brace World.
Pyles, Thomas, and John Algeo. 1982. The Origins and Development of the English Language. 3rd ed. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Pyles, Thomas, and John Algeo. 1993. The Origins and Development of the English Language. 4th ed. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.