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Obituary: Arne Zettersten (1934-2015)

Arne Zettersten, Professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Copenhagen for almost thirty years, from 1975 to 2004, was a philologist with numerous achievements to his credit

Born on 10 January 1934 in Lidköping, on the southern edge of Lake Vänern, Arne Zettersten was a much lauded student at Lund University; he graduated in 1956 and was appointed lecturer in English phonetics in 1958. His doctoral dissertation was supervised by Olof Arngart (1905-97) who had succeeded to the Chair of English Philology at Lund, a Chair that had been given great distinction by the place-name scholar Eilert Ekwall.

Lund had a global reputation in English philology, phonetics and onomastics, and Zettersten was one of its graduates. Another, slightly older, was Jan Svartvik who with Randolph Quirk and others would create the most sophisticated account of English grammar: A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (1985). It is a measure of Lund’s strengths that Svartvik was appointed to the Chair of English Philology at Lund in 1970 while Zettersten was invited to the Chair at Copenhagen in 1975, in succession to Knud Schibsbye (1950-74).

…there followed a succession of contributions to English philology, of which one must single out the edition of Waldere, an Old English poem known only through two fragments held in Denmark’s Royal Library…

In the late 1950s Zettersten began work for the Dr.Phil. (doktordisputats); the dissertation was completed in 1965, its subject the ‘AB’ variant of Middle English first identified and named in 1929 by J. R. R. Tolkien. The AB variant is deduced from two groups of texts, the Ancrene Wisse (‘Advice to anchoresses’) which survives in seventeen distinct manuscripts, and the saints’ lives known as the ‘Katherine Group’ gathered in a single manuscript in the Bodleian Library at Oxford.


Tolkien set out the evidence for ‘AB English’ in a series of volumes for the Early English Text Society (E.E.T.S.) presenting the extant versions of the Ancrene Riwle (as the Wisse is also known). Zettersten visited Tolkien in Oxford in 1960 and soon afterwards was appointed editor of two of the seven projected volumes. His edition of the Magdalene College Cambridge manuscript was published by E.E.T.S. in 1976; the series was completed with Zettersten’s edition of the Vernon manuscript of the Ancrene Riwle in 2000.

In 1965 Zettersten published his dissertation, Studies in the Dialect and Vocabulary of the Ancrene Riwle, and there followed a succession of contributions to English philology, of which one must single out the edition of Waldere, an Old English poem known only through two fragments held in Denmark’s Royal Library, and discovered there in 1860.

Immediately on appointment to the Chair at Copenhagen, Zettersten set to work on this text; his edition was published in 1979 and was the first to be made on the basis of the manuscript itself (with examination by ultra-violet light) rather than through reliance on facsimiles. Zettersten’s Waldere remains authoritative.

Tristan da Cunha

Though appointed as a philologist, Zettersten found that at the University of Copenhagen there was little interest in the field of his expertise, and reckoned that as the professor of English language he should transform himself into a linguist. This he undertook with enthusiasm, pursuing an impressive range of new interests.

His versatility had never been in doubt: his second monograph had been on a most improbable subject, The English of Tristan da Cunha (1969). In 1961 the remote island in the south Atlantic suffered an eruption of its volcano and the entire population was evacuated. On arrival in England the islanders were interviewed by the BBC, and their unusual accents caught the ear of Randolph Quirk; he arranged for a group of linguists at University College London to carry out more extensive interviews by way of establishing a phonetic record.

Zettersten analysed the tapes made by Quirk’s team and provided a detailed account of the phonetics of a group of English speakers who had been largely cut off from the outside world since 1816. It was an exceptional opportunity to engage in what amounted to ‘diachronic field-work’, and a privilege for a young scholar to be invited to undertake and publish the analysis. Zettersten retained a strong interest in ‘island languages’.


Thereafter his researches extended far, into the use of computing for language studies, and of technology for language teaching. In this field, as early as 1985, he developed the BrainLearn Authoring System, which was taken up in China, and he wrote the pioneering introduction, New Technologies in Language Learning (1986). Zettersten applied his skills in computational linguistics to the mapping of regional variations of English in the British Isles, and he made a serious commitment to lexicography both practical and theoretical.

He was the initiating and chief editor of Politikens Engelsk-Dansk Ordbog, which would be published in 1999; in 1980 he had arranged the first International Symposium on Lexicography at the University of Copenhagen and he convened its biennial meetings for the next twenty-five years. Over those decades Copenhagen acquired its reputation as a major centre of lexicographical research. Zettersten was an editor of no fewer than eleven volumes of the Symposium’s Proceedings, published between 1983 and 2005. He also had diverse literary interests and was commissioned by Longman’s to edit an anthology of East African literature, published in 1983.

Zettersten may well have been the last person to have known Tolkien primarily as a scholar rather than as the author of Lord of the Rings.

Amidst all these activities Zettersten served as President of the International Association of University Professors of English (IAUPE) from 1992 to 1995, when he welcomed its members to Copenhagen for its triennial conference. From 1980 to 1992 he was President of the Nordic Association for English Studies, and from 1991 Nordic representative for the European Society for the Study of English (ESSE). He was chairman of the Danish branch of the English-Speaking Union from 1992 to 2007, a long-serving member of the ESU’s International Council and—a particularly notable honour— its President in 2009-10. Zettersten held numerous visiting professorships in universities across Europe and North America, and before assuming the Chair at Copenhagen had served for three years as Cultural Attaché at the Swedish Embassy in London. For his services to Denmark he was appointed Ridder of Dannebrogsordenen (First Class) in 2003.

On retirement in 2004 his colleagues in Scandinavia, Britain and beyond paid tribute to Arne Zettersten in Worlds of Words, a special issue of the Nordic Journal of English Studies.


His retirement was passed in Göteborg and on the hill of Kinnekulle by Lake Vänern, near his childhood town of Lidköping. In 2008 Zettersten published in Swedish a memoir of his mentor and friend J. R. R. Tolkien, subsequently expanded in an English version brought out by Palgrave in 2011, J. R. R. Tolkien’s Double Worlds and Creative Process.

This book attracted considerable attention and will always have value as an account of Tolkien from what was in 1960 still a philological perspective: The fame of The Lord of the Rings did not begin until the mid-1960s. Zettersten may well have been the last person to have known Tolkien primarily as a scholar rather than as the author of Lord of the Rings. Where others have seen Tolkien’s fantasies as representing a dereliction of his scholarly and professorial duties, Zettersten forcefully argues that Tolkien was always and in all his writings a philologist, and that we cannot and should not distinguish between the scholar and the popular author.

This tribute to Zettersten’s account of Tolkien is paid by Professor John Lennard of Cambridge who celebrates ‘the book’s academically transgressive virtue in its refusals to sequester either Tolkien’s life and works, or his scholarship and creativity. Arne Zettersten was one of the very few people who could talk to Tolkien with both a genuine knowledge of early Germanic languages and a reader’s enthusiasm for Middle-earth; and was able to see the extraordinary fusion in Tolkien of the scholar’s utmost rigour and the poet’s fantastic leap. None of Tolkien’s other critics has been privileged to share anything like the extensive conversations Zettersten and Tolkien enjoyed over more than a decade about the texts and languages on which they both worked.’

In making his case for Tolkien Arne Zettersten presents a memoir of a young scholar not quite yet aware that he would pass his career in an era of diminishing interest in English philology. There is a certain disillusioning in the reminiscence.

For all that he achieved in an impressive diversity of fields, Zettersten regretted that he had lost the opportunity fully to realize his scholarly gifts as a philologist, and as a teacher of the discipline in which he had been trained with such distinction. As his younger colleague, Professor of English Literature at the University of Copenhagen since 1996, I shared the sense of dismay that linguistics tends to pay scant regard to the particularities of different languages; while it might in some ways greatly enhance our understanding of language as such, it offers little to the study of the written records of a particular language. We agreed that without a philological awareness the study of literature was impoverished.

It happened that I learnt of my colleague’s death while I was attending an academic event in London. My neighbour at dinner had recently completed his Ph.D. in Middle English philology. With him I could share the sad news, and though he had never met Arne Zettersten he certainly knew the name as that of an eminent editor. English philology may be coming out of its long decline; it was a comfort that evening to find that the news of a colleague’s death could be shared with a young scholar to whom that colleague’s work meant something. And it would have been a consolation to Arne Zettersten to know that his work is still admired and relied upon, and that English philology seems set to renew its energies and to reclaim its inheritance.

Arne Zettersten died on 21 September 2015 and is buried in the graveyard of the medieval church of Forshem by Kinnekulle, in Västergötland. He leaves a widow, Docent fil.dr. Gerd Bloxham Zettersten, formerly lecturer in Art History at the University of Copenhagen and Associate Professor of Architectural History at Chalmers University of Technology, Göteborg; a stepdaughter and stepson acquired through his second marriage, in 1994, and a daughter by his first.

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