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In Memoriam Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. mult. Herbert Pilch

The English Department of the University of Freiburg is mourning the loss of our long-time colleague, the renowned Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. mult. Herbert Pilch, who passed away on April 19, 2018 at the age of 91.

In Memoriam Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. mult. Herbert Pilch

Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. mult. Herbert Pilch

Herbert Pilch was part of the pioneering post-war generation of English linguistics scholars in Germany that brought the discipline into the modern age. These scholars overcame the isolation imposed by National Socialism and war to reconnect with developments in the international linguistics community.

Herbert Pilch was born in East Prussia in 1927. After the war, he obtained qualifications at Kiel University as a secondary school (Gymnasium) foreign-language teacher in English, French and Russian, and went on to complete a Ph.D. as well as a postdoctoral degree (Habilitation) in 1957 in the areas of medieval English literature and language. At a time when academic exchanges abroad were not yet the norm, he was inspired by encounters with eminent international scholars such as Bernard Bloch and André Martinet, and subsequently developed an independent approach to phonology and syntax which was inspired by the international structuralist tradition. After associate professorships at the universities of Cologne and Frankfurt, he joined the faculty of the University of Freiburg in 1961 as a full professor and chair of English philology. Despite retiring in 1995, he remained active within the English Department as long as his health allowed.

The breadth of his scholarly interests is well illustrated by the following highlights from his extensive publication record. His 1964 Phonemtheorie helped establish the structuralist approach in English studies in Germany and went through two revised and expanded editions by 1974. An authoritative sum of his research on the phonetics and phonology of English is contained in the comprehensive Manual of English Phonetics, published in 1994 and numbering more than 700 pages. Altenglische Grammatik (1970) combines the best of traditional philological erudition with an innovative theoretical approach indebted to modern linguistic methods. He also turned his focus to the study of Celtic languages and their literatures, and established Celtic studies at Freiburg’s English Department. For decades, he taught the Welsh language to small but committed groups of interested students and published extensively on several Celtic languages. His comprehensive survey Die keltischen Sprachen und ihre Literaturen was published in 2007, the year in which he celebrated his 80th birthday.

Herbert Pilch undeniably left his mark on the English Department at the University of Freiburg. A commanding presence for many decades, he was a committed researcher and teacher, and a great individualist. He was impressively multilingual, possessing an excellent command of several languages as well as profound scientific knowledge of their inner workings. Pilch gained an international reputation through his research in English historical linguistics, but also for his work in the fields of phonetics and Celtology. He inspired his students in all of these subjects, and some of them even went on to become professors themselves. A creative thinker, he was not averse to a bit of productive scholarly controversy: he kept abreast of the latest theories, but did not necessarily join the mainstream.

He also earned the acclaim of many colleagues in the academic world for cultivating a partnership with the University of Iaşi in Romania, which he continued to pursue even in politically complex circumstances. He was awarded two honorary doctorates (from the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, in 1984, and the University of Iaşi in 1990) as well as the 2008 German Federal Cross of Merit.

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