Professor J D Burnley

David Burnley, Professor of English Language and Linguistics and a member of University of Sheffield staff since 1973, died on 5 August 2001, aged 59.


Professor David Burnley
Professor David Burnley

An internationally acclaimed medievalist, David Burnley was born in Wakefield but spent his formative years in Alnwick, where he attended the Duke's School. It was the Northumberland landscape, so rich in historical interest and natural beauty, that provided the backdrop of David's life in his early years, and which found its expression time and again in the interests that he would later pursue. It was also Alnwick where he met Helen, who later became his wife.

He studied English at the University of Durham and subsequently gained an MA by thesis on a comparison of five Middle English Romances and their French sources. While at Durham, he had the good fortune to study under Professor G V Smithers, one of the last Germanic-style philologists, who instilled in him the need for meticulous analysis of sources, careful study of complete linguistic profiles, and scrupulous attention to detail.

These were all features that remained characteristic of David's scholarly work throughout his career. He stayed on at Durham for his PhD, which was devoted to a study of the vocabulary of Chaucer. This thesis confirmed his interest in late Middle English, the study of vocabulary and semantics, and his involvement in the nature of courtly love literature and the terminology which it generated.

David accepted a Tutorial Research Fellowship at Bedford College, University of London, in 1968 and his first lectureship post came a year later at the University of Lancaster. It was here that he built upon his interests in linguistics, which led him to becoming one of the few scholars who was comfortable in both traditional philology and modern linguistics.

In 1973 he moved to the University of Sheffield as a Lecturer in the Department of English Language. David played a crucial role in the Department's overall aim of retaining a disciplined philological approach to the history of the English language, while simultaneously expanding the study of modern varieties of the language using modern linguistic method. It was within the framework of this approach that David taught a broad spectrum of courses, including Old English poetry, Middle English alliterative verse, the history of the language, Old French literature, Modern English grammar, lexis and semantics, and phonetics and syntax.

He was generous with his knowledge and time, and he touched the lives of many of his students with the careful and conscientious supervision that he offered, reflecting a genuine care and interest in their work and progress.

His area of special expertise however became the language and literature of Geoffrey Chaucer. Two of his early books — Chaucer's Language and the Philosophers' Tradition (1979) and A Guide to Chaucer's Language (1983, re-issued 1989 as The Language of Chaucer) — demonstrate how he encouraged a deeper understanding of Chaucer's language and culture.

In spite of the historical perspective of many of his research interests, David's approach and methodology could never be described as being anchored in the past. He was quick to recognise opportunities that computer technology might present for teaching and research into modern varieties of the language.

Within the Department, he organised a dedicated computer room for students, and his own research became increasingly influenced by computers. He produced The Sheffield Chaucer Textbase, a corpus of machinereadable Middle English texts which is accessible to researchers all over the world.

David's self-acquired skills in programming also led to him creating a CD-Rom, entitled Old English — A Multimedia History (2000), which is published by The British Library. It covers the language and culture of England from the coming of the English until the Norman Conquest, incorporating interactive images of manuscripts, architecture and jewellery. His most recent research project was to produce a computer version of the Auchinleck manuscript, a collection of Middle English Romances and other texts, to be published by the National Library of Scotland.

During his career David published numerous books and articles. The History of the English Language: A Sourcebook, now in its second edition, remains a standard text for universities throughout the world. He was Associate Editor of the Year's Work in English Studies and worked together with Matsuji Tajima on an Annotated Bibliography of the Language of Middle English Literature. His last book, Courtliness and Literature in Medieval England, was published in 1998.

David was frequently invited to speak at international conferences on English language, medieval literature and modern linguistics. In 1993, he undertook a lecture tour of Japanese universities, consolidating the links that the Department enjoys with distinguished Japanese academics.

Promotion came with a Senior Lectureship in 1983, a Readership in 1990 and a Personal Chair in 1993. David was also involved in the administrative side of the University, serving as Dean of the Faculty of Arts from 1995 to 1997, as well as Head of the Department of English Language and Linguistics from 1996 to 2000. He was instrumental in setting up the new School of English in 1998, of which he became its first chairman. In the various roles he carried out, David was valued among his colleagues for his sound judgement; proceedings were always conducted with fairness and often enlivened with his sharp and dry wit. With the onset of ill-health, David reluctantly relinquished his administrative and teaching responsibilities in 2000, but always the committed scholar, he accepted a research professorship.

Throughout his life, David maintained varied outside interests from which he derived great pleasure. He was a member of the Alpine Garden Society and would travel the country to add to his collection of specialist alpines, many of which he grew from seed. His enthusiasm for natural history went back to his boyhood and he spent many family holidays with his wife and children, Emma and Richard, walking in the mountains of Scotland and France, sharing his delight in the discovery of local plants and wildlife. More recently, he had begun to explore the historical sites of Greece and Italy.

David continued to pursue his many interests as well as his research throughout his illness, retaining at all times the courtesy, enthusiasm and dedication with which he was associated by all those who knew and worked with him.


Reproduced here with the kind permission of Norman Blake. First published in The University of Sheffield Newsletter.