Linguist made study of Irish compulsory at Polish university

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EDMUND GUSSMAN:EDMUND GUSSMANN, who has died aged 65, was a Polish linguist who established a school of Celtic studies in eastern Poland during the 1980s, introducing compulsory Irish for his students at a time when it was becoming optional in Irish schools.

Gussmann’s Celtic languages programme survives at the Catholic University of Lublin to this day, partly funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Almost a dozen teachers from Ireland have worked in Lublin since the 1980s, teaching Irish to hundreds of Poles.

A powerful, sometimes domineering personality, Gussmann developed his Celtic programme by obliging students of English at the university to study either Irish or Welsh too. He brooked no opposition from students who complained that they had no interest in Celtic languages, telling them that, if they were unhappy at the Catholic University, they were welcome to move to Lublin’s state-controlled university, where they could study compulsory Marxist-Leninist theory.

Most of the students knuckled down and studied an modh coinníolach, not least because the Catholic University was the only independent university in communist Poland and the only university in the eastern bloc whose degrees were recognised in the West. Leaving the university would also have left male students open to being conscripted into the Polish army.

The son of a shipyard worker, Gussmann was born near Gdansk in 1945 and unusually for someone with a working-class background in communist Poland, was accepted at Warsaw University to study English in 1963. During a two-year scholarship to Iceland in the late 1960s, Gussmann developed a passion for the Icelandic language and also became interested in Irish.

After his return to Poland in 1970, Gussmann joined the English department of the Marie Curie Skladowska University in Lublin, soon establishing himself as a major force in English studies and as one of his country’s most promising young linguists.

On a Fulbright Scholarship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he produced his first major publication, Studies in Abstract Phonology (1980, MIT Press), establishing an international reputation in linguistics.

In 1981, he moved to the city’s Catholic University to re-establish an English department which had been closed in the 1950s, taking the first steps towards setting up a Celtic linguistics programme three years later with the appointment of a Welsh language teacher.

On his return to Poland after a year in Ireland as a visiting lecturer at University College Dublin, he set up an Irish language course, with the Department of Foreign Affairs partly funding the cost of employing a language teacher from Ireland.

In 1990, when an Irish Embassy opened in Warsaw, he established the first Chair of Celtic Studies in Eastern Europe, occupying it himself.

Despite his fascination with the grammatical structure of Irish, Gussmann had little interest in Irish culture and society, and felt more at home in England and Scandinavia. One of his constant gripes was the way the Irish language teachers in Lublin spoke English, which he once described as “barbarous”.

Gussmann took less interest in Irish after 1999, when he left Lublin and moved back to his native region of Gdansk-Gdynia, where he immersed himself once more in his first great love, the language and literature of Iceland. He changed university once more in 2004, opting this time for the Scandinavian Institute of the University of Poznan.

The last 10 years of his life were very productive academically, resulting in many important articles and in two major books: Phonology: Analysis and Theory (Cambridge, 2002) and The Phonology of Polish (Oxford, 2007).

Despite his autocratic management style, Gussmann was revered by many students and colleagues in Poland, and made a lasting contribution to linguistics in general, and in particular to the study of the grammatical structure of the Celtic languages.

Although modified over the years, the Celtic programme has survived in Lublin, and Welsh and Irish continue to be taught there as second foreign languages.

Gussmann, who never married, is survived by his three brothers, Roman, Jan and Stanislaw.

Edmund Gussman: born January 27th, 1945; died September 2nd, 2010

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