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OBITUARY: Professor D. N. MacKenzie

8th April 1926 – 13th Oct. 2001



Monday, 22 October 2001

David Neil MacKenzie, linguist: born London 8 April 1926; Lecturer in Kurdish, Soas, London University 1955-61, Lecturer in Iranian Languages 1961-65, Reader 1965-75; Professor, Göttingen University 1975-94 (Emeritus); FBA 1996; married 1951 Gina Schaefer (three sons, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1981), 1981 Gabriela Hoffmann (marriage dissolved 1988); died Bangor, Gwynedd 13 October 2001.


D. N. MacKenzie was a polyglot whose linguistic knowledge was remarkable in both range and depth. Generally recognised as the world's leading authority on modern Kurdish and medieval Khwarezmian, he also made distinguished contributions to the study of many other Iranian languages, including Pashto, Pahlavi and Sogdian, at the same time displaying enviable competence in non-Iranian languages such as Arabic and Chinese.


Neil MacKenzie – he never used his first name, David – was born in London in 1926 and attended a succession of schools in Slough, Windsor and Cambridge before enlisting as a "boy soldier" in 1943. During the two years preceding the partition of India in 1947 he was stationed in the North-West Frontier Province, where he learned Pashto and thus became interested in the Iranian family of languages.


On his return to civilian life he enrolled at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, where he graduated with a BA in Persian and an MA in Old and Middle Iranian. After fieldwork in Kurdistan, MacKenzie obtained his PhD in 1957 with a thesis later published as Kurdish Dialect Studies (1961-62). This work provided for the first time a sound basis for a classification of the numerous dialects of Kurdish. Together with a series of early articles on the history of Kurdish and its relationship to other West Iranian languages it immediately established MacKenzie's reputation both as an Iranist and as a general linguist.


MacKenzie had been appointed Lecturer in Kurdish at Soas in 1955, but the title did not do justice to the breadth of his interests. In 1961 it was changed to Lecturer in Iranian Languages and in 1965 he was promoted to Reader. During the Sixties he wrote and published important books on Pashto literature and on the Gorani dialect of Awroman as well as on Kurdish, his ever- expanding range giving the lie to a former colleague's description of "poor MacKenzie" as "the man who knows all the dialects and none of the languages", a phrase that he enjoyed quoting.


At the same time he began to turn his attention to earlier Iranian languages, immersing himself successively in Middle Persian or Pahlavi (together with Judaeo-Persian and other archaic forms of Persian), Sogdian and Khwarezmian.


A particularly important achievement was his elaboration of the first scientific system of transcribing Pahlavi. This system, presented in two modestly titled works, "Notes on the Transcription of Pahlavi" (an article in the Soas Bulletin, 1967) and A Concise Pahlavi Dictionary (1971), has since been widely adopted. The modesty was typical of a scholar who never took his scholarship too seriously and who once wrote of his work:

At times I think that etymology should be classed as a "social disease" – perhaps requiring one to ring a little bell to warn the healthy.


In 1975 MacKenzie was appointed to the Chair of Oriental Philology at the University of Göttingen, an appointment which was all the more gratifying because he thus became the successor (at several removes) of F.C. Andreas, the teacher of his own much-revered mentor, W.B. Henning. During his 20 years in Göttingen his productivity continued unabated, and by 1990 he had 10 books to his credit as sole or joint author.


MacKenzie's scholarly output was substantial by any standards. It would surely have been even more so if he had not devoted so much of his time to the work of others. He was the de facto editor of many important publications, though seldom credited as such on the title-page. Having acquired a personal computer earlier than most in his field, he came to be known as an expert in the production of camera-ready copy, a chore which he generously undertook for many pupils and colleagues.


An upholder of the highest standards of scholarship, MacKenzie was fearsome as an examiner or reviewer. His criticism could be caustic, since he detested sloppiness and had no time for tactful circumlocutions; but those who had the courage to submit their work to him in advance of publication knew that it would be worth their while to endure a certain amount of mortification for the sake of his penetrating comments. A friend once wrote that MacKenzie's "spirited directness of speech" was respected by those who knew him well as an indication of his personal integrity. One aspect of this integrity was to apply the same standards to his own work as to others', to accept criticism and admit mistakes, often with self- deprecating humour.


After his retirement in 1994 MacKenzie settled in North Wales. His return to Britain was immediately followed by his election as a Fellow of the British Academy. He had already been honoured in 1991 by a Festschrift, Corolla Iranica, and in 1999 his collected papers, Iranica Diversa, were published in two volumes. In retirement he was not content to rest on his laurels but continued to seek new challenges, investigating the little-known Zaza language at the same time as working on a longstanding project, the compilation of a Khwarezmian dictionary.


It is a matter of extreme regret that the latter remains unfinished.


Professor Nicholas Sims-Williams


Source: The Independent




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