John Rupert Firth

English linguist (1890-1960)

John Rupert Firth (June 17, 1890 in Keighley, Yorkshire – December 14, 1960 in Lindfield, West Sussex), commonly known as J. R. Firth, was an English linguist and a leading figure in British linguistics during the 1950s.


  • A western scholar must de-europeanize himself, and, in view of the most universal use of English, an Englishman must de-Anglicize himself as well.
    • J. R. Firth, (1956). "Descriptive linguistics and the study of english." in: F.R. Palmer (ed.), Selected Papers of J.R. Firth, Indiana University Press, p. 96; As cited in: Angela Senis (2016)
  • Collocations are actual words in habitual company. A word in a usual collocation stares you in the face just as it is. Colligations cannot be of words as such. Colligations of grammatical categories related in a grammatical structure do not necessarily follow word divisions or even sub-divisions of words.
    • Firth (1962, p. 14), as cited in Wendy J. Anderson, A corpus linguistic analysis of phraseology and collocation in the register of current European Union administrative French. Diss. University of St Andrews, 2003.

Speech, 1930


J. R. Firth (1930). Speech. Benn’s Sixpenny Library. Reprinted in Peter Strevens (ed.) (1964). The Tongues of Men and Speech. London: Oxford University Press.

  • The phonetic animal par excellence is man. All men are born with an infinite capacity for making noises and using them.
    • 1964, p. 141; Chapter 1; Chapter 1: The Origin of Speech
  • In English we have noticed twenty-five consonant and about twenty vowel phonemes. Although individual pronunciations may differ, the phonemic habits of the same group or class will be similar. They will make similar use of heterophony. Words not phonetically separated — that is, homophones — may be separated by function or by experiential context
    • p. 182
  • It is not easy to determine what are the units of speech. Some would say speech sounds, others phonemes... The general opinion is, however, that words, not phones or phonemes or phoneme systems, are the units of speech.
    • p. 182-183; As cited in: Angela Senis (2016: 293)

"The Technique of Semantics." 1935


J. R. Firth (1935). "The Technique of Semantics." Transactions of the Philological Society, 36-72; p. 37 (Reprinted in Firth (1957) Papers in Linguistics. London: Oxford University Press, 7-33).

  • The complete meaning of a word is always contextual, and no study of meaning apart from context can be taken seriously.
    • p. 37
  • Research into the detailed contextual distribution of sociologically important words, what one might call focal or pivotal words, is only just beginning.
    • 1957, p. 10
  • The study of such words as work, labour, trade, employ, occupy, play, leisure, time, hours, means, self-respect, in all their derivatives and compounds in sociologically significant contexts during the last twenty years would be quite enlightening. So would the study of words particularly associated with the dress, occupations, and ambitions of women, or the language of advertising, especially of quackery, entertainments, food, drink, or of political movements and propaganda.
    • 1957, p. 13
  • Meaning... is to be regarded as a complex of contextual relations, and phonetics, grammar, lexicography, and semantics each handles its own components of the complex in its appropriate context.
    • p. 54

The tongues of men. 1937


J. R. Firth (1937). The tongues of men. Oxford University Press, 1964 edn.

  • Speech is our most valuable instrument, because we can make it fit our common lives. We are not born to follow words. Words follow life. It has always been so from the very beginning. In fact, the human larynx and the shape of the passages above it have evolved in harmony with the lives our earliest ancestors lived, first in the trees, and then on the ground.
    • p. 25 (1968; 24)

"A synopsis of linguistic theory 1930-1955." 1957


John Rupert Firth (1957). "A synopsis of linguistic theory 1930-1955." In Special Volume of the Philological Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press.;

  • You shall know a word by the company it keeps.
  • The various structures of sentences in any given language, comprising for example at least two nominal pieces and a verbal piece must be collated, and such categories as voice, mood, affirmative, negative, tense, aspect, gender, number, person and case, if found applicable and valid in descriptive statement, are to be abstracted from, and referred back to the sentence as a whole.
    • p. 20
  • There is always the danger that the use of traditional grammatical terms with reference to a wide variety of languages may be taken to imply a secret belief in universal grammar. Every analysis of a particular ‘language’ must of necessity determine the values of the ad hoc categories to which traditional names are given. What is here being sketched is a general linguistic theory applicable to particular linguistic descriptions, not a theory of universals for general linguistic description.
    • p. 21; as cited in: Olivares, Beatriz Enriqueta Quiroz. The interpersonal and experiential grammar of Chilean Spanish: Towards a principled Systemic-Functional description based on axial argumentation. Diss. University of Sydney, 2013.
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