Hans Kurath

Hans Kurath (13 December 1891 – 2 January 1992) was an American linguist of Austrian origin. He was full professor for English and Linguistics at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. The many varieties of regional English that he encountered during his trips convinced Kurath of the necessity of completing a systematic study of American English.

In 1926, he convinced the Modern Language Association to begin planning for the project and in 1931, a pilot study of the New England region was initiated under his direction. It soon became clear, however, that the undertaking was too complex to be completed by a single team of linguists. The project was thus expanded to eight additional regional operations.

Kurath guided the vision and goals of the regional projects for three decades and oversaw the publication of a series of volumes that are known collectively as the Linguistic Atlas of the United States, the first linguistic atlas of the US. That work made him receive the Loubat Prize.

He was also the first main editor of the Middle English Dictionary. Together with Raven I. McDavid, Jr. he also published a linguistic atlas of the Eastern United States, The Pronunciation of English in the Atlantic States.


Kurath was born in Villach, Austria-Hungary. He emigrated to the US in 1907 and became a US citizen in 1912. He studied at the Universities of Texas and Chicago. He did his Ph.D. in 1920. Afterwards, he was professor for German at Northwestern University (1920–1927) and then professor for German and Linguistics at the Ohio State University (1927–1931) and Brown University (1931–1946).

In 1946, he became Full Professor for English and Linguistics at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (1946–1962). In 1941 he was president of the Linguistic Society of America. In 1959 he received an honorary doctor's degree from the University of Chicago.

He died in Ann Arbor, Michigan, at the age of 100. His wife was dance ethnologist Gertrude Prokosch Kurath.


Kurath's chief research interest was historical linguistics and his primary goal was to use the Linguistic Atlas to reconstruct the evolution of American English from the relatively "pure" forms of English brought to the United States by early settlers to the regional dialects that existed in the contemporary United States. Kurath was convinced that language held a living record of events like the growth of trade and transport systems, urbanization and population movements. By plotting regional differences in vocabulary and pronunciation on maps, Kurath and the other researchers were assembling what they hoped was a visual record of the social processes that had transformed American English over the past 200 years.

Each regional operation used similar techniques: a small team of linguists fanned out across the region interviewing at least two people in every county. Kurath gave the researchers explicit instructions about the types of informants who were considered appropriate for the project. In every town or city selected for the project at least two people would be chosen, one had to be "old-fashioned and unschooled," Kurath suggested a farmer or a farmer's wife, and the other should be "a member of the middle class who has had the benefit of a grade-school or high-school education" (Kurath 1949: v). The communities themselves were also carefully screened. Kurath placed a priority on towns that were early American settlements or could be directly linked to them through historical records.

Selected bibliography

  • Linguistic Atlas of New England, 3 vols., New York 1939–1943
  • Handbook of the Linguistic Geography of New England, Providence 1939
  • A Word Geography of the Eastern United States, Ann Arbor 1949
  • Middle English Dictionary (main editor), Ann Arbor 1946-1962
  • The Pronunciation of English in the Atlantic States (with Raven I. McDavid, Jr.), Ann Arbor 1961


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