Wagner, Heinrich Hans (1923–88), linguistic scholar, was born 16 January 1923 in Zurich, Switzerland, elder of two sons of Heinrich Wagner, businessman, and his wife Eliza (née Siegfried), both of Zurich. His mother, the daughter of a restaurateur, spoke German (her native tongue), French, and Italian fluently. Heinrich received his early education at Primär Schule, Zurich (1929–35), and later at Das Kantonal Litterar Gymnasium (1935–41). He took the Matura (school leaving certificate) in 1941, and began his university career at the University of Zurich in the same year.
In his early years, he excelled both as a pianist and a linguist, and he had hopes of becoming a concert pianist. When he went to university, however, he studied Germanic philology and Indo-European, his principal teachers being Professors Hotzenköcherle and Leumann. In the winter semester of 1943/4, he also took an introductory course in Old Irish with the distinguished scholar Julius Pokorny (qv). This course awakened his interest in the Celtic languages, and in September 1945 he went to Ireland in order to gain a practical knowledge of Irish, which he considered to be of extraordinary importance to students of Indo-European. He stayed in the Dunquin Gaeltacht in Co. Kerry from December 1945 until June 1946. He became fluent in Irish, and collected folklore material from the famous storyteller Peig Sayers (qv), which he transcribed phonetically. Heinrich then visited many other Gaeltacht areas, collecting more oral material and acquainting himself with the dialects. He later changed his own spoken dialect of Irish to the Donegal variety.
While he was a student in Zurich, he had studied phonetics and dialect geography. He was now determined to apply the methods adopted by Hotzenköcherle, who was responsible for the Swiss German linguistic atlas, to a major study of Irish dialects. Having returned to Ireland in 1949 as a scholar at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS), he published an outline plan for his projected work in Éigse, vi (1949). This was a remarkably ambitious plan for a young scholar, and during the next twenty years he worked indefatigably to bring it to fruition. The result was his monumental Linguistic atlas and survey of Irish dialects, published in four volumes between 1958 and 1969.
It was clear since the publication of his doctoral thesis on the origin of ē-verbs in Indo-European (awarded 1948, magna cum laude; published 1950) that Wagner was an unusually gifted scholar. He had already gained a formidable reputation for his ability of acquiring a sound knowledge of a range of Indo-European languages very quickly, and this was now augmented by an impressive scholarly reputation. He was appointed in 1951 to the post of professor of Germanic philology at the University of Utrecht (1951–3), and he held a similar chair at the University of Basel between 1953 and 1958. He then returned to Ireland to assume the chair of Celtic (later, Celtic and comparative philology) at QUB, where he remained for the next twenty-one years. He moved to a professorship at the DIAS in 1979, a position he held at the time of his death.
His major published works encompass a broad range of studies on Indo-European and other languages, including the Fenno-Ugric languages and Basque. In addition to the Atlas, important books and pamphlets on the Celtic languages include the seminal Das Verbum in den Sprachen der Britischen Inseln (1959), Gaeilge Theilinn (1959), The origins of the Celts in the light of linguistic geography (1969/1970), and Studies in the origin of the Celts and of early Celtic civilization (1971).
He began assisting Pokorny in editing the Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie in 1962 and, following the latter's death in 1970, he assumed the editorship. Some of his most detailed and insightful work is contained in this journal. He also published significant works on irregular word position in Old Irish, the ergative construction, and Hittite from the viewpoint of linguistic typology. Further dialect studies and collections, based on his fieldwork in the 1940s and 1950s, were published in collaboration with other scholars and former pupils. A member of the RIA (1964), Heinrich was the recipient of an honorary degree from the NUI (1979).
He married (3 January 1951) Marjorie Keogh of Dublin, daughter of Michael Keogh and Mary Keogh (née Hayes). They had one daughter, Simone, and three grandchildren. His premature death from myeloma in Dublin on 11 September 1988 deprived Celtic studies of a truly great scholar and a wonderful human being. A complete bibliography of his publications, compiled by Rolf Baumgarten, appears in Séamus Mac Mathúna and Ailbhe Ó Corráin (ed.), Miscellanea Celtica in memoriam Heinrich Wagner (Uppsala, 1997).
More information on this entry is available at the National Database of Irish-language biographies (Ainm.ie).