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George Campbell Dies; Spoke 44 Languages

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 20, 2004; Page B06

George L. Campbell, a British linguist who could converse with cabbies and shopkeepers, write scholarly tomes and conduct learned discourse in more than 40 languages, died of pneumonia Dec. 15 in Brighton, England. He was 92.

Mr. 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.


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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 British author Anthony Burgess noted in a 1991 review of the Compendium, Mr. Campbell had a ways to go to master the world's thousand-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."

Mr. 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, Scotland, 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.

Mr. Campbell's sister Aileen Campbell McCausey, who immigrated to the United States in 1947 and who lives in Woodstock, Va., noted that her older brother had a slight stammer from an early age. Playing outside at age 2 1/2 or 3, he was attacked by the Seaforth family dogs; McCausey said their mother always claimed that his stammer originated in that traumatic event.

In school -- from elementary through high school, as McCausey recalled -- teachers thought Mr. Campbell was 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 schoolboy friend was deaf, and because Mr. Campbell rarely talked, taunting schoolmates labeled them "the deaf and the dumb."

When he and his sister rode their bikes to school, the young Mr. 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.

His sister recalled 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 in high 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 World War II in 1939, Mr. Campbell was called to the military but was immediately transferred to the BBC World Service as a language supervisor. His job, as former colleague Victor Price noted in a Scottish newspaper, the Ross-Shire Journal, was to make sure that speakers did not stray from their authorized 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 newspaper a few years ago that he had made a point of asking native speakers at the BBC about Mr. Campbell's facility. "All said that his knowledge was not only adequate but amazing," Mikes wrote.

Survivors include his wife of 64 years, Jen Campbell of Wiltshire, England; two sons, Colin Campbell of Bath, England, and Malcolm Campbell of Twickenham, England; two sisters; and seven grandchildren.

Douglas Dearie, Mr. Campbell's nephew and a Bowie software engineer, recalled his uncle as a gentle man with a wry sense of humor who, in his soft-spoken Scottish burr, loved telling stories. Dearie recalled that Mr. Campbell and his wife traveled the world but didn't like to go where they already knew the language.

Mr. Campbell never visited the United States, although in the late 1980s, he worked closely with several Native American tribes in the Southwest on translating phonetic languages.

That work was especially meaningful to him. As McCausey recalled, she and her brother had few playmates on the Braham Estate, so they spent a great deal of time together acting out Zane Grey westerns. He was "Wetzel," she "Jonathan," from 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 McCausey saw her brother, a couple of years ago, he recalled that long-ago adventure. "I forgive you, Jonathan," he said.


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