George Campbell, a Dingwall-born linguist who could converse with cabbies and shopkeepers, write scholarly tomes and conduct learned discourse in more than 40 languages, died of pneumonia last Wednesday in Brighton. He was 92.
Campbell, who was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records during the 1980s as one of the world’s greatest living linguists, could speak and write fluently in at least 44 languages and had a working knowledge of perhaps 20 others.
He was the author of the Compendium of the World’s Languages (Routledge, 2000), a two-volume work that includes articles on more than 250 tongues, along with a summary of the language’s geographic location, its relation to other languages and the number of people who speak it.
As the author Anthony Burgess noted in a 1991 review of the compendium, Campbell had a fair way to go to master the world’s 1,000-odd languages but was a "genuine polyglot" nonetheless. Burgess predicted that the book, "created out of a few mouthfuls of air", would be "a lifelong delight".
Campbell, a linguist at the BBC for many years, also wrote a companion book, Handbook of Scripts and Alphabets (Routledge, 1997).
George Law Campbell was born in Dingwall, in Ross and Cromarty, the son of the overseer of gardens and dells for Lord and Lady Seaforth, heirs to the Braham Castle Estates. The Campbell family lived on the main estate, near the castle.
Campbell’s sister, Aileen Campbell McCausey, who emigrated to the United States in 1947 noted that her older brother had a slight stammer from an early age. Playing outside at age two-and-a-half or three, he was attacked by the Seaforth family dogs; Ms McCausey said their mother always claimed that his stammer originated from that traumatic event.
Right through his schooldays, his sister recalled, teachers thought young Campbell a dunce because of his stammer. They relegated him to the back of the classroom and ignored him, which allowed him to devour language books on his own. His best school friend was deaf, and because Campbell rarely talked, taunting schoolmates labelled them "the deaf and the dumb".
When he and his sister rode their bikes to school, the young Campbell had his sister take the lead so he could follow in her path while he concentrated on whatever language book he had propped on his handlebars.
Ms McCausey said that he told an Oxford University interviewer that "if it was today’s world, someone would have cured me, and I would never have been a linguist".
Sitting in the back of the classroom, he taught himself Spanish and Italian before learning French and German at secondary school. When he applied to the University of Edinburgh, he found out he needed to know a classic language, so he taught himself six years of Latin in a year and won the school’s Latin prize. He found his language books burrowing through secondhand bookstalls at a fish market.
He studied German at the University of Leipzig and mastered eight other languages from fellow students who had come to Leipzig from Central and Eastern Europe.
In 1937, he received a degree in librarianship from London University and became assistant librarian in the School of Slavonic Studies. He picked up Hungarian, Persian and Albanian along the way.
With the outbreak of the Second World War, Campbell was called to serve but was immediately transferred to the BBC World Service as a language supervisor. His job, as one former colleague, Victor Price, noted in the Ross-Shire Journal, was to make sure that speakers did not stray from their authorised scripts and to shut them off if they did. He stayed with the BBC until 1974, when he retired as head of the Romanian Service.
Living in retirement in Brighton, he taught himself classical Chinese, Basque and several other languages and translated academic works, mainly from Russian and German. He also played the piano and taught himself tensor calculus ("I wanted to know what the cosmologists were talking about," he told his former BBC colleague.)
Another BBC colleague, George Mikes, recalled in the Guardian a few years ago that he had made a point of asking native speakers at the BBC about Campbell’s facility. "All said that his knowledge was not only adequate but amazing," Mr Mikes wrote.
Douglas Dearie, one of Campbell’s nephews, recalled his uncle as a gentle man with a wry sense of humour who, in his soft-spoken Scottish burr, loved telling stories. Mr Dearie recalled that Campbell and his wife, Jen, travelled the world but didn’t like to go where they already knew the language.
They never visited the United States, although in the late 1980s, he worked closely with several Native American tribes in the south-west of the country on translating phonetic languages.
That work was especially meaningful to him. As Ms McCausey remembered, she and her brother had few playmates on the Braham Estate, so they spent a great deal of time together acting out "Cowboy and Indian films". Frequently, he would play "Wetzel" and she "Jonathan," from Zane Grey’s Spirit of the Border.
Once, she fell out of a tree and accidentally bashed him in the head with her homemade tomahawk when she landed on top of him. The last time Ms McCausey saw her brother, in 2002, he recalled that long-ago adventure. "I forgive you, Jonathan," he told her.
Campbell is survived by his wife of 64 years, Jen, two sons, two sisters and seven grandchildren.