Obituary: Dr. Philip Holmes, linguist

Dr. Philip Holmes, who has died at 74, was reader emeritus in Scandinavian studies at Hull University, having dedicated his life to the study of Scandinavian languages and cultures, in particular Swedish.

Dr Phil Holmes
Dr Phil Holmes

As fluent as many natives, he once supplied a junior Foreign Office diplomat, seated next to him on a plane, with a guide to Swedish grammar and a list on the essentials of the nation’s history and culture, before their flight had landed.

Born in King’s Norton, Birmingham, Phil Holmes was the eldest of two sons to Arthur and Joan Holmes. His father had been an RAF pilot and was an accountant for BMC Motors. Phil won a scholarship to Magdalene College School, Oxford, and when his father became financial director at BMC Sweden in Södertälje, south of Stockholm in 1961, he stayed behind in the UK to finish his O-levels.

He joined the family a year later and attended sixth form at the Gymnasieskola, receiving intensive instruction in Swedish from one of his teachers.

After the family’s return to the UK, Phil completed his A-levels and attended university, but returned to Sweden every summer to work. He had intended to work in the Ordnance Survey agency and took a joint degree in geography and Swedish at Hull University, but Swedish rapidly became his main interest. He graduated in 1967 and with a scholarship spent the following year at Uppsala University, gaining a qualification in Nordic languages.

Harald Borland, professor of Swedish at Hull, spotted his talent and took him on as PhD student in 1968. The following year, he was appointed to a lectureship. His PhD, awarded in 1976, was about narrative technique in the novels of the Swedish writer, Vilhelm Moberg, whose most important work is on Swedish emigration to the USA in the mid-19th century.

In 1973 he went to Sweden to interview the author, only to find he had died a few days earlier.

Later, he was awarded the Vilhelm Moberg Prize by the Moberg Society when he published Moberg’s biography in Swedish in 2001.

Early in his academic career, Phil turned his attention to language teaching and especially grammar. After several in-house publications, in which he often involved colleagues, he published Swedish - A Comprehensive Grammar, which he co-authored with Ian Hinchliffe, in 1993. Two further editions followed over the next 20 years as well as several editions of its shorter version. But Swedish was not enough, and Danish – A Comprehensive Grammar, co-authored with Bob Allen and Tom Lundskær-Nielsen, followed in 1995 and saw two editions as well as a shorter Essential Grammar. He completed what he called his “trio of grammars” in 2018 with the publication of Norwegian - A Comprehensive Grammar, co-authored with Hans-Olav Enger.

The Swedish Language Council recognised his work in 2004 when, jointly with Ian Hinchliffe, he was awarded the Erik Wellander Prize, an annual prize for outstanding research into Swedish.

At Hull University, Phil was a prominent member of staff. For 18 out of 24 years between 1978 and 2002 he was head of the department of Scandinavian Studies and fulfilled many other leadership roles, including as chairman and general editor of Hull University Press. He was a member of the 1992 and 1996 Germanic panels for the periodic research assessment exercises, which rank universities for their research.

He was given the title of emeritus reader in 2004, when he retired and Hull closed down several of its smaller languages departments – a decision he found hard to swallow. Subsequently he set up his own successful translation company, while also working on grammar publications and fulfilling a dream of owning a house in the French countryside.

A forthright colleague, fighting stuffiness and questionable academic convention, he was for his students an inspiring teacher.

His outside interests extended from astronomy and mycology, to the Liberals and Liberal Democrats of the East Riding, whom he joined early in his career.

He is survived by his wife, Linda, their two daughters and four grandchildren.