Scotsman Obituaries: Prof Ronald E Asher, respected Edinburgh University linguist

Professor Ronald Eaton Asher. Born: 23 July 1926 in Gringley-on-the Hill, Nottinghamshire. Died: 26 December 2022 in Edinburgh, aged 96
Prof Ronald E Asher was known for his astonishing range of expertiseProf Ronald E Asher was known for his astonishing range of expertise
Prof Ronald E Asher was known for his astonishing range of expertise

Professor Ronald Asher of the University of Edinburgh was a renowned linguist and specialist in the Dravidian languages of South India. As scholar, teacher and academic leader he earned the respect and admiration of colleagues and students worldwide and throughout his long career he upheld the highest standards of academic life.

Ron had an astonishing range of expertise: French language and literature, the languages of South India and many fields of general linguistics. His translations into English of novels and poetry written in Dravidian languages made those works available for the first time not just to a worldwide Anglophone audience, but also to hundreds of millions in India whose languages are unrelated to Malayalam or Tamil, and who were schooled in English from early childhood.

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His translations of literature in Malayalam and Tamil are universally recognised as works of genius. A recent tribute in The Hindu, one of the leading English language newspapers in India, lauded him as “the most popular linguist in India from Europe”. In other linguistic fields, the ten-volume Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics for which he was General Editor was epoch-making and The Atlas of the World’s Languages which he co-authored with C J Moseley was equally magisterial.

Ron’s worldwide contributions to scholarship were recognised by the award of many honours, including the medal of the College de France in 1970, a chair in the Kerala Sahitya Academy in 1983 and the Fellowship of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1991. In 2007 the Sahitya Akademi, India's National Academy of Letters, elected him as an Honorary Fellow. Other accolades came to him from India, the USA, France and Japan.

His personal involvement was not simply with the established elites of global academies. He cared deeply about academic development in general in South and East Asia and in the 1980s he was supportive of Edinburgh colleagues who sought to promote the teaching of British history in China. He engaged, too, with South Indian communities in the UK. The Malayalee Association of the UK published a fulsome tribute and held a commemorative event for him in January 2023. Both Sir Stephen Timms MP and the writer and former Newham councillor Dr Omana Gangadharan participated in his funeral in Edinburgh on 22 February.

Ron’s early years as a teenager and young man did not point inevitably to a stellar academic career. He won a scholarship to study at the King Edward VI Grammar School in Retford, Nottinghamshire but at the age of 16 was conscripted to do war service in the Yorkshire mines. In 1947 he entered University College London and in 1950 completed his Bachelor of Arts degree with first-class honours in French. A Certificate in French Phonetics followed in 1951 and a PhD in 1955.

During these years, although principally focused on French studies, Ron developed an interest in linguistics. In this he was encouraged by Daniel Jones (reputedly the model for Professor Henry Higgins in Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion) and J R Firth, now universally regarded as the greatest British linguist of the 20th century. It was indicative of the academic path he would subsequently follow that in 1957 Ron accepted a Lectureship in Tamil at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. He stayed there until his move to Scotland in 1965 where his University of Edinburgh appointment was as Senior Lecturer in Linguistics. Promotions to Reader and Professor in 1970 and 1977 followed.

Some scholars as productive as Ron have been known to concentrate on their own research at the expense of the other tasks expected of an academic at a major UK university. Ron was never guilty of this failing. He was fully committed to promoting research excellence throughout his department, not only by fostering individual scholarship but also through such collaborative developments as the renowned Centre for Speech Technology Research. He saw teaching and research as complementary, not rival, activities and he devoted his time and energy also to the personal welfare and the teaching programmes provided to students in the Linguistics Department.

As an academic leader Ron served with great distinction across the wider university. He was Dean of the Faculty of Arts from 1986-89. In this role he amply displayed the qualities that members of Faculty came to expect from their Deans and was widely admired and respected by colleagues.

He set the highest personal standards in his research and teaching, he listened to differing and conflicting opinions, he tried to seek consensus, but he was never afraid to give a strong lead if he faced a divided Faculty. He would speak truth to power, he would not be intimidated by any colleague, however senior, and he was supportive of the interests and achievements of more junior colleagues.

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Ron went on to serve in a similar hardworking and principled fashion as Vice Principal of the University from 1990-1993 at a time when there were only three senior people of this rank.

Even after his retirement in 1994 his commitment to the University of Edinburgh remained palpable. He served for two complete terms as an elected member of the Business Committee of the General Council and contributed assiduously to its activities.

It was a fitting recognition of Ron’s eminence that in 2018 the University of Edinburgh conferred on him the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters, the citation being specifically for his contribution to linguistics. The lasting memory of Ron in the minds of friends and colleagues may, however, be not of Ron Asher the scholar but of Ron Asher the man. It is his personal and intellectual integrity that will remain with, and inspire, many people throughout the world.

Ronald E Asher is survived by his wife of over 60 years, Ching Asher, and their two sons, David and Michael.


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