J. R. Firth

From New World Encyclopedia

John Rupert Firth commonly known as J. R. Firth (June 17, 1890 – December 14, 1960) was an English linguist, the first professor of general linguistics in Great Britain. He was the originator of the London School of Linguistics and played important role in the foundation of linguistics as an autonomous discipline. He is famous for his ideas on phonology and the study of meaning.

Firth worked on prosody, the study of rhythm, intonation, and related attributes in speech. The theory of the “context of the situation” became central to his approach to linguistics. He held that language was not to be studied as an isolated mental system, but as a response to the context of particular situations. Firth and his ideas achieved prominence in Britain, with his London School, and his student Michael Halliday developed his systemic linguistics by elaborating on the foundations laid by Firth. Firth's work is thus a significant contribution to our understanding of human language, one of the key cognitive achievements of human beings that support the development of society, culture, science, literature, and all forms of knowledge.


J. R. Firth was born in Keighley, Yorkshire, England on June 17, 1890. He attended the local grammar school, after which he studied at Leeds University, obtaining his BA and MA in history. He also briefly taught history at a Leeds teacher training college.

In 1914, Firth went to India to work for the Indian Education Service. As World War I had just started, Firth joined the military service, serving in India, Afghanistan, and Africa. After the war he was named professor of English at the University of Punjab. There he became interested in languages and started his life-long journey into linguistics.

In 1926, Firth briefly returned to Britain, staying for a year. He returned again in 1928, when he received a position in the Department of Phonetics at University College London. At the same time, he also taught at the London School of Economics (LSE) and at Oxford University. At LSE, he met Bronislaw Malinowski who influenced some of his later ideas.

Firth published his two famous works, Speech (1930) and Tongues of Men (1937) while staying at the University College London. He also published several smaller works on the phonology of languages such as Burmese and Tamil.

Firth spent 15 months (in the period between 1937 and 1938) on a research fellowship in India, where he studied languages such as Gujarati and Telugu. In 1938, he returned to London, receiving a position in the Department of Phonetics and Linguistics at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies. He was made a reader in 1940, and head of department in 1941.

With the start of World War II, Firth ran intensive training courses in Japanese language for the soldiers to be sent to the Pacific front. Firth was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1946 for this work.

In 1944, Firth became Professor of General Linguistics at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies, the first such position in Great Britain. He held that position until his retirement in 1956.

While at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies, Firth developed his ideas on phonology, which are regarded as his greatest contribution to linguistics. With a group of colleagues, he formed a “London School of Linguistics,” which was based on Firth’s particular ideas in this area.

Firth died suddenly on December 14, 1960 in Lindfield, Sussex, England.


Firth’s two most famous works are Speech (1930) and Tongues of Men, written in 1937. Targeting a wide audience, Firth used simple language in describing what later became recognized as Firthian linguistics. Firth wanted to promote linguistics as an independent science, and thus he concluded both works with a call for establishment of linguistic institutes. In Speech, Firth wrote that Britain needed to invest more in the study of English language, as well as other languages of the British Empire.

Context of situation

Firth is noted for drawing attention to the context-dependent nature of meaning with his notion of "context of situation." The theory of the “context of the situation” became central to his approach to linguistics. For Firth, language was not to be studied as a mental system. Rather, in the spirit of positivism and behaviorism, he argued that language represents a set of events which speakers uttered—an action one learned in doing things. He believed that whatever anyone said must be understood in the context of the situation. Thus, beside linguistic factors, factors like the status and personal history of the speaker, as well as the social character of the situation, must also be taken into account. Firth described the "typical" context of situation as the occasions where we use ready-made, socially-prescribed phrases such as “How do you do?”

Prosodic Analysis

Firth also greatly contributed to prosody, the study of rhythm, intonation, and related attributes in speech. He first set out his phonological ideas on prosody in his Sounds and Prosodies (1948). Firth rejected purely phonemic analysis, as practiced by leading phonologists at the time (such as Nikolai S. Trubetzkoy and Leonard Bloomfield). Firth argued that there was a clear separation between phonetics and phonology. Furthermore, phonematic units and prosodies are not assumed to have obvious phonetic content, and must be accompanied by "exponency" statements explaining how a particular piece of phonological structure maps onto the phonetics. With such assumptions, Firthians were able to combine an abstract phonology with detailed phonetic description.

Firth’s work on which he emphasized at the expense of the phonemic principle prefigured later work in autosegmental phonology.


The term "phonestheme" (or "phonaestheme" in British English) was coined in 1930 by Firth (from the Greek phone = "sound," and aisthanomai = "perceive") to label the systematic pairing of form and meaning in a language. In the case of phonesthemes, the internal structure of the word is non-compositional; a word with a phonestheme in it has other material in it that is not itself a morpheme. For example, the English phonaestheme "gl-" can be found in words relating to light or vision, such as glow, glitter, glare, glisten, gleam, and so forth. The remainder of each word (-ow, -itter, -are, -isten, -eam) however is not itself a morpheme and does not make meaningful contribution to the words. Other examples of phonesthemes include "sn-," (related to the mouth or nose, as in snarl, snout, snicker, snack, and so on), and "sl-" (appears in words denoting frictionless motion, like slide, slick, sled, and so on.)

Firth also studied phonological features of speech such as intonation, stress, and nasalization. He noticed that they differ considerably across languages.


As a teacher in the University of London for more than 20 years, Firth influenced a generation of British linguists. The popularity of his ideas among contemporaries gave rise to what was known as the London School of Linguistics. Among Firth's students, the so-called neo-Firthians were exemplified by Michael Halliday, who was professor of general linguistics in the University of London from 1965 until 1970. At the time of his death, Firth was recognized as the utmost leader of British linguistics.

Outside of Great Britain however, Firth’s influence was limited. Although he lectured abroad, especially in the United States, he never gained any significant support for his views. In the U.S. it was Kenneth L. Pike who acknowledged Firth’s ideas.

In the 1960s and 1970s, many of Firthian ideas were challenged by general generative linguistics and overtaken by the work of Morris Halle and Noam Chomsky. Some basic ideas of Firth, however, survived and were taken up by his student Michael Halliday, who founded Systemic Functional Linguistics. Also, the theory that the autonomous phoneme is an untenable object can be traced to Firthian linguistics.


  • Firth, J. R. 1930. Speech. London: Ernest Benn.
  • Firth, J. R. 1935. "The Technique of Semantics." Transactions of the Philological Society, 36-72.
  • Firth, J. R. 1937. The Tongues of Men. London: Watts & Co.
  • Firth, J. R. 1946. "The English School of Phonetics." Transactions of the Philological Society, 92-132.
  • Firth, J. R. 1948. "Sounds and prosodies." Transactions of the Philological Society, 127-152.
  • Firth, J. R. 1957. Papers in Linguistics 1934-1951. London: Oxford University Press.
  • Firth, J. R. 1957. "A Synopsis of Linguistic Theory, 1930-1955" in J.R. Firth et al. Studies in Linguistic Analysis. Special volume of the Philological Society. Oxford: Blackwell.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Anderson, Stephen R. 1985. Phonology in the Twentieth Century. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226019160
  • Bazell, Charles Ernest. 1966. In Memory of J.R. Firth. London: Longmans.
  • Harris, Roy. 1988. Linguistic thought in England, 1914-1945. New York, NY: Routledge. ISBN 0415900662
  • Honeybone, Patrick. Firth, J.R. School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences, University of Edinburgh. Retrieved on November 11, 2007.
  • Langendoen, Terrence. 1968. The London School of Linguistics: A Study of the Linguistic Theories of B. Malinowski and J.R. Firth. Cambridge, MA: MIT.
  • Mitchell, T. F. 1975. Principles of Firthian linguistics. London: Longman. ISBN 0582524555
  • Robins, R.H. 1961. John Rupert Firth (Obituary). Language, 37(2), 191-200.


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