Chair no. 2 - Bo Ralph

Bo Ralph, born 4 October 1945 in Göteborg. Linguist, Professor of Nordic Languages at the Department of Swedish Language at Göteborg University. He was elected to the Swedish Academy on 15 April 1999 and was admitted on 20 December 1999. Ralph succeeded the philosopher and sociologist Torgny Segerstedt to Chair number 2.

After taking his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1969, Bo Ralph fairly soon became associated with Sture Allén’s research team at the department of Nordic Languages at Göteborg University and with its pioneering computerised lexical projects. Ralph’s own research was initially of a language-historical nature. Its internationally marked theoretical awareness, however, gradually differed from traditional language history.

Introduktion i historisk språkvetenskap (1972; ‘Introduction to historical linguistics’) is appreciably influenced by the historically-oriented variation of generative grammar, produced at the end of the 1950s by the American linguist Noam Chomsky. The basic idea was that a limited number of rules was able to generate all the grammatical clauses of a language and no ungrammatical ones, whereby each clause of the language could be given a distinct structural description. Gradually both semantic and pragmatic factors made their way into the theory and, towards the end of the 1960s, a generative historic linguistics was developed with Paul Kiparsky and Robert D. King as leading names. With his Introduktion i historisk språkvetenskap, Bo Ralph associated himself directly with this theory, while the book also surveyed other types of language-historical method.

During the early 1970s Ralph polished his instruments in a number of international articles with a growing phonological orientation, and in 1975 published his exceptionally rich doctoral thesis Phonological Differentiation, with the modest subtitle Studies in Nordic Language History. This however is not separate studies of Nordic language history but one coherent work with a double perspective: a series of descriptions of fundamental Nordic language changes on the one hand; on the other a fully developed theory of language change. The objective was, within the framework of a generative model, to do justice to what is perhaps the most important property of language: its variation. Realising that the idealised models of pure generative grammar accord but poorly with everyday language in function, Ralph nevertheless conducts a generative analysis but one that remains open to variation. To give a more realistic picture of linguistic variation than closed categories can produce, he in his thesis employs different parameters instead, thus paving the way on Swedish soil for what is termed parameter linguistics.

It was through this work that Bo Ralph became a Doctor of Philosophy in 1975, and in 1977 an Assistant Professor. During the years that followed he became involved in the large lexical projects at the Department of Computational Linguistics (Språkdata). He worked on the lexical database project that eventually led to Svensk ordbok (1986; ‘A Swedish dictionary’), and he wrote essays on among other things what technical language really is, before taking up his professorship in 1982. This however was not in his home city of Göteborg but at the Department of Nordic Languages at Stockholm University. At the same time he joined the editorial committee for the publication of August Strindberg’s Samlade verk (‘Collected Works’). He also wrote a substantial language-historical compendium entitled Fornsvenska för nusvenskar (1983; ‘Old Swedish for New Swedes’).

Ralph remained in Stockholm only for a few years, returning in 1984 to his home city of Göteborg as a professor at the Department of Nordic Languages. In the same year he joined the board of the Swedish Centre for Technical Terminology and became a member of the Royal Society of Arts and Sciences in Göteborg. In the following year he became chairman of the Swedish Institute reference group for issues regarding the teaching of Swedish, and in 1987 a member of the Bible Commission board.

During these hectic years, and together with his colleague Lars-Gunnar Andersson, he treated the Göteborg dialect and its origin on Radio Göteborg and in the daily Göteborgs-Tidningen. This led to a couple of popular scientific works: Sicket mål (1986; ‘What a Goal / What a Dialect’)* and Mål på hemmaplan (1987; ‘Home Goal / Home Dialect’)*, written together with Andersson who eventually became Ralph’s professor colleague the Department of Swedish Language. (The department was founded in 1991 when the Department of Nordic Languages and Språkdata were combined.) Of the many items in his production during the following ten years may be mentioned his lecture on “Hur svenskan blev svensk” (‘How Swedish became Swedish’) included in Kungl. Vitterhets historie och antikvitetsakademiens årsbok 1995 (‘Yearbook for 1995 of the Royal Swedish Academy of Letters, History and Antiquities’).

During this period Bo Ralph worked predominantly on a number of large lexicographical projects, both as manager of the Lexicographical tradition in Sweden project, which treated the history of the Swedish dictionary tradition, and also in Nordic lexicographical cooperation, earning for the Nordic languages a leading position in international lexicography.

In 1999 he edited Modersmålet i fäderneslandet (‘Our mother-tongue in the land of our fathers’), a broad selection from Sture Allén’s articles produced for the latter’s seventieth birthday. In the same year his involvement in matters Nordic was rewarded by a chair in Det Norske Videnskaps-Akademi (The Norwegian Academy of Sciences) and his combined production in the form of a chair in the Swedish Academy.

For a number of years Bo Ralph has worked on the Academy’s behalf on a large new history of the Swedish language, planned to function as a companion volume to the Swedish Academy Grammar. He has also written Memoirs on the popular educator and dictionary maker Karl Eduard Kindblad (1807–1892) for the issue of the Academy’s commemorative coin for 2000, calling attention to the hitherto overlooked hard work by Kindblad in adult education. Ralph’s own commitment to adult education emerges clearly from his inaugural speech on his predecessor on Chair No. 2, Torgny Segerstedt.

*It is hard to parallel in English the pun on the word mål , which can mean either ’goal’ or ‘dialect’. (Translator’s note)

Jan Arnald
(Translated by Tim Crosfield)