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date: 08 December 2023

Wright, Josephfree


Wright, Josephfree

  • Arnold Kellett

Joseph Wright (1855–1930)

by unknown photographer

Wright, Joseph (1855–1930), philologist and dialectologist, was born on 31 October 1855 at Park Hill, Thackley, in the township of Idle, near Bradford, the son of Dufton Wright (1817/18–1866), a woollen cloth weaver and quarryman, and his wife, Sarah Ann Atkinson. His place of birth explained his later whimsical comment: 'I've been an idle man all my life, and shall remain an idle man till I die' (Wright, 1). Nothing, however, could have been further from the truth, for Joseph Wright, largely self-educated, was a man of phenomenal vigour and assiduity. In this he contrasted with his cheerful but shiftless father and took after his energetic mother, who worked hard to bring up four children in the poverty-stricken life of their small one-roomed cottage. For a short period she even had to go with her family into Clayton workhouse, where Joseph, aged five, like Oliver Twist, asked for more bread, and got it—this being an early indication of his enterprising spirit.

Early life and education

Sarah Ann, a lifelong Methodist who attended the Primitive Methodist Chapel at Windhill, had a crucial influence on her son. She gave him the example of dignity in the face of hardship, especially after her husband's death in 1866 at forty-eight, and inspired in him a desire to better himself. In later life when he had achieved academic fame she would speak with pride of ‘Ahr Jooa’ (our Joe), and once, when he was showing her All Souls College at Oxford, she remarked of this fine building: 'Ee, but it 'ould mak a grand Co-op!', thus illustrating how Joseph Wright was always able to keep in touch with his working-class roots in dialect-speaking Yorkshire (Wright, 2).

Joseph Wright started to bring a little extra income into the family by getting a job at the age of six, working as a donkey-boy at Woodend quarry, Windhill, not far from his home in Thackley. He worked from 7 a.m. until 5 p.m. leading a donkey-cart containing quarrymen's tools, which he took to the smithy to be sharpened or repaired. In the following year, 1862, when he was seven, he managed to get an indoor job at Salt's, the famous mill in the model village built by Titus Salt further along the River Aire at Saltaire. Here the boy worked as a ‘doffer’ in the spinning department, removing full bobbins and replacing them with empty ones, for which he was soon being paid 3s. 6d. a week. Like other boys of his age he worked as a ‘half-timer’, attending for a while the school provided by Titus Salt. This was the only formal schooling he ever received, and here he learnt little more than arithmetic, and was not taught to read or write.

At the age of thirteen Joseph moved to Stephen Wildman's mill at Bingley, where he worked first as a doffer, then as a wool-sorter, earning between £1 and 30s. a week, the extra wages being vital to his mother after her husband's death. It was at this mill that the turning point came. During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, when Joseph had to depend on a few literate workmates for news read aloud from the papers, he became determined to learn to read and write. This was accomplished, at the age of fifteen, with his only two books, the Bible and The Pilgrim's Progress, and with help from a reasonably educated workmate, Alfred Brook.

Joseph now started attending night school, first paying 6d. a week and avidly reading the fortnightly instalments of Cassell's Popular Educator. At a night school in Windhill, under John Murgatroyd, he embarked on French, followed by German and Latin. At the mechanics' institute in Bradford he studied arithmetic, geometry, and algebra. The first certificate he received was in 1875, signed by Isaac Pitman. He had gained proficiency in shorthand by taking down sermons heard at his mother's Methodist chapel, where he regularly attended morning and evening services. He also attended the Sunday school, where he organized a lending library, and was also in great demand at the popular ‘penny-readings’, when he recited dialect poems such as those by John Hartley.

By running his own night school at home, charging local lads 2d. a week, Wright supplemented his income: he eventually saved £40, which he spent in 1876 on a journey to Germany during a temporary closure of the mill. He walked all the way from Antwerp to Heidelberg, where at the university he studied German and maths for eleven weeks of a fourteen-week term, at which point his money ran out. On his return to England he managed to secure a post as a teacher at Springfield School, Bradford, and at the same time studied at the Yorkshire College of Science (later Leeds University). In 1879 he became a resident master at the Wesleyan Grove School, Wrexham, went to Roubaix for a while to improve his French, and finally taught at Margate.

In the spring of 1882, having passed the intermediate exam of a London BA degree, Wright returned to Heidelberg, intending to study mathematics. He was, however, encouraged by Professor Hermann Osthoff, aware of his outstanding gift for languages, to devote all his time to comparative philology. Managing to support himself by teaching mathematics, he obtained a PhD degree three years later with a three-part oral exam and a thesis entitled 'The qualitative and quantitative changes in the Indo-Germanic vowel system in Greek'. His exceptional talent while still a student led Karl Brugmann, a prominent member of the Junggrammatiker, to invite him to produce an English translation of his Grundriss der vergleichenden Grammatik der indo-germanischen Sprachen, which was published in 1888. So Joseph Wright became part of the late nineteenth-century expansion of historical linguistics, parallel to a similar rapid growth in the physical sciences.

Academic career and publications

In 1886 Wright moved to the University of Leipzig, where he studied phonetics, German literature, and Lithuanian. He also worked for Julius Groos, the Heidelberg publisher, supervising the issue of thirty books. In the following year he moved to London, and in 1888 was invited by Professor Max Müller to Oxford, where he was appointed lecturer to the Association for the Higher Education of Women, teaching Gothic, Anglo-Saxon and Old German. He was also appointed deputy lecturer in German at the Taylor Institution, where he prepared primers in Old High German, Middle High German, and Gothic, published by the Clarendon Press, and later became honorary secretary to the institution's curators. That he still remained close to his Yorkshire roots is shown by the publication in 1892, almost entirely in phonetics, of his Grammar of the Dialect of Windhill in the West Riding of Yorkshire. Academic colleagues were said to have at first regarded this as a leg-pull, but he now began to give serious attention to all English dialects, starting the work that was to be his lasting memorial.

Wright's one ambition was to produce a comprehensive English Dialect Dictionary. The project had already been started by Professor W. W. Skeat on behalf of the English Dialect Society, founded in 1873. When Wright was appointed deputy professor of comparative philology at Oxford in 1891, Skeat was only too pleased to hand over to him the material already accumulated: an estimated million slips of paper, weighing a ton. Wright, having decided that at least a further million slips would be needed, set about organizing more than a thousand helpers in committees in various parts of the country, their task being to collect words and phrases in local dialect. Of particular interest is the committee in Bradford, Yorkshire, where he had appealed for help to a meeting at the technical college in November 1894. When the members of the Bradford committee had completed their work in 1897, having contributed 35,000 items, they decided that, rather than disband, they would form the Yorkshire Dialect Society (now the oldest of its kind in the world). Dr Wright, who became one of the society's first vice-presidents, was especially pleased, as the English Dialect Society had ceased to function during the previous year.

In 1901 Wright was appointed professor of comparative philology as successor to Max Müller. In the ongoing laborious task of supervising publication of the dictionary he testified to the inspiration and support provided by his wife, Elizabeth Mary (1863/4–1957), daughter of Frederick Simcox Lea. They had first met when she attended his lectures at Oxford. Elizabeth did most of the secretarial work for the dictionary, which included sending out countless letters and 50,000 prospectuses. They celebrated their engagement on the day the first volume appeared, in July 1896, and they married on 6 October. Their attachment was truly romantic and their marriage especially happy in the home built by Joseph at Oxford (subsequently demolished, though the name he gave to the house, Thackley, was preserved in the name of the block of flats on the site). Contemporaries described them as 'the happiest couple in Oxford', but they had nevertheless experienced great sorrow through the loss of both their son and daughter in early childhood.


The six substantial volumes of the English Dialect Dictionary 'of all dialect words still in use, or known to be in use during the last two hundred years' (preface) were finally published in 1905—but at Professor Wright's own expense, as he could find no publisher willing to take the financial risk. The estimated personal cost of £25,000 was as little compared with the monumental task of preparing some 5000 pages containing 100,000 headwords with half a million quotations. No wonder he said of the dictionary that it was 'the one thing I wish to be remembered by'. This also applied to The English Dialect Grammar, which he considered an essential philological introduction to the dictionary, published with the final volume in 1905. Although a modern approach would favour a basis of systematic dialect surveys, with etymology for every item, there can be no doubt that Joseph Wright's colossal undertaking will always hold a unique place on the reference shelves. In the words of a Yorkshire Dialect Society resolution welcoming its appearance: 'It is undoubtedly the final English Dialect Dictionary, as the materials from which it is composed are fast disappearing' (Halliday, 16).

Joseph Wright did not rest on the laurels of his lexicography. He continued to give his vigorous and methodical lectures, and to contribute to the life of Oxford, in particular playing a major part in organizing the university's first real school of modern languages, recruiting staff, creating libraries, and doubling the number of language students between 1905 and 1914. He also worked hard for the school of English, serving on the committee and organizing in 1913 one of the first courses for foreign students of English. His great love of clear and thorough teaching was expressed not only in his lectures but in a series of books written especially for students, including a Historical German Grammar (1907), an Old English Grammar (1908), a Grammar of the Gothic Language (1910), and a Comparative Grammar of the Greek Language (1912). He then revised his Middle High German Primer (1917), and published introductory grammars in Old English and Middle English in 1923 and his Elementary Historical New English Grammar in 1924.

Joseph Wright's status as scholar and pioneer was recognized by his election as a fellow of the British Academy on 25 June 1904, and by the award of honorary degrees from the universities of Durham, Aberdeen, Leeds, Dublin, and Oxford, as well as his honorary membership of the Royal Flemish Academy, the Utrecht Society, the Royal Society of Letters of Lund, and the Modern Language Association of America. His prodigious output continued into old age, when he claimed he could still work fifty or sixty hours a week without feeling tired. It is not surprising that soon after arriving in Oxford a scholar who owed so much to German universities should have gained election to ‘the Club’: the small group of dons who wanted more prominence for research and the professoriate by comparison with college-based undergraduate teaching. Wright was still forthrightly aligning with this position in his full and detailed evidence to the Asquith commission on Oxford and Cambridge (1919–22), and could have made few friends with his claim that 'far too many of the administrative affairs of the University are in the hands of men whose minds have lost their elasticity' (Bodl. Oxf., Asquith Commission papers, box 1, MS Ɣο‎ɣ Oxon b 104, fol. 235). His last years were saddened by the university's controversial failure in 1928 to accept his bequest of £10,000 for extending the Taylor Institution. At the age of seventy-four he succumbed to pneumonia, and died at his Oxford home, Thackley, 119 Banbury Road, on 27 February 1930. He was buried at Oxford.

Those who knew Joseph Wright testified to the personal charm of this bearded, bespectacled, pipe-smoking Yorkshireman, who presided with his wife over regular Sunday tea parties for friends and Oxford students, offering them his ‘birthday cake’, home-made fruit cake baked every week. In 1925 Sir Michael Sadler described him as 'a good Yorkshireman—hearty, simple, unaffected, affectionate, vigorous, undismayed, and one of the great scholars of the age' (Gunner, 16). The impressive thing about Joseph Wright was not only that he rose to this scholarly eminence from ragged illiteracy, but that he never allowed academic interests to obscure his origins, and enjoyed nothing better than to be able to use his native Yorkshire speech, which, like all dialects, he regarded as an authentic language, with every right to be taken seriously.


  • E. M. Wright, The life of Joseph Wright, 2 vols. (1932)
  • C. Firth, ‘Joseph Wright, 1855–1930’, PBA, 18 (1932)
  • W. J. Halliday, ‘The Yorkshire Dialect Society, 1897–1947’, Transactions of the Yorkshire Dialect Society, 7 (1947)
  • G. E. Gunner, ‘Joseph and Elizabeth Mary Wright’, Transactions of the Yorkshire Dialect Society, 15 (1985)
  • F. Austin Hyde, ‘Yorkshire remembers Dr. Joseph Wright’, The Dalesman (Oct 1955)
  • C. Firth, Modern languages at Oxford (1929)
  • Bodl. Oxf., Asquith Commission papers, box 1, MS Ɣο‎ɣ Oxon b 104
  • b. cert.
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.


  • U. Oxf., letters, photographs, etc.
  • BL, letters to W. A. Copinger, Add. MS 62551
  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp. relating to English dialect dictionary
  • Bodl. Oxf., papers relating to English dialect dictionary
  • JRL, letters to John Howard Nodal relating to English Dialect Society


  • E. Moore, portrait, U. Oxf., Taylor Institution; copy, U. Leeds
  • photograph, Telegraph and Argus, Bradford
  • photograph, NPG [see illus.]
  • photographs, repro. in Wright, Life of Joseph Wright, vol. 1, facing p. 32, facing p. 36; vol. 2, facing p. 388

Wealth at Death

£24,666 7s. 7d.: probate, 1930, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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