Bailey was born in Devizes, Wiltshire, and raised from age 10 onwards on a farm in western Australia without formal education. While growing up, he learned German, Italian, Spanish, Latin, and Greek from household books, and Russian from a neighbor. After he grew interested in the lettering on tea-chests from India, he acquired a book of Bible selections translated into languages with non-European scripts, including Tamil, Arabic, and Japanese. By the time he had left home, he was reading Avestan as well….
Bailey has been described as one of the greatest Orientalists of the twentieth century. He was said to read more than 50 languages, and was the world’s leading expert in Khotanese, the mediaeval Iranian language of the kingdom of Khotan in Chinese Turkestan. He was known for his immensely erudite lectures, and once confessed: “I have talked for ten and a half hours on the problem of one word without approaching the further problem of its meaning.” …
But there is much more detail in the Encyclopaedia Iranica biography and bibliography by John Sheldon:
His parents decided to emigrate to Western Australia and bought 805 acres of virgin bushland about two hundred kilometres east of Perth. Hence it was that Harold Bailey never again attended a school, but worked with the other members of his family to clear the land and turn it into a farm. His spare time was devoted to reading and he devoured everything that he could find starting with the eight volume Harmsworth Encyclopaedia in which he first read about “Teheran” and “Avestan” and four other books containing lessons in French, Latin, German, Greek, Italian and Spanish. In 1919 he seems to have gained access to books in Sanskrit, Pali and Avestan… Bailey’s extraordinary ability to remember any word he had seen in any language, which was described by many of the most erudite of his peers in later life as “phenomenal”, was without doubt in evidence in his youthful years. The extent of the knowledge he had somehow acquired can be gauged by the fact that he managed during his early time at the university to compose a long Sanskrit poem in the mandākrāntā metre….
During the Oxford years Bailey was at long last able to pursue Oriental Studies at an academic level. His official courses were in Vedic, Classical Sanskrit and Prakrit under F. W. Thomas and James Morrison. He was R. P. Dewhurst’s first regular student in Avestan, still called Zend at that time; he did not attend G. E. K. Braunholtz’s classes in Comparative Philology, as they were deemed too elementary for him. In addition to this, he attended lectures in Old Irish; throughout his life he maintained a deep interest in all things Celtic. He spent a good deal of time on Armenian, being awarded in 1928 the first Nubar Pasha Armenian Scholarship which he put to good use by working on the Armenian Alexander Romance. In this same year he learnt Georgian by transcribing all one thousand six hundred quatrains of Rustaveli’s Man in the Panther Skin from a copy in the Bodleian Library….
During the war the London School of Oriental and African Studies was forced to move to Cambridge and Henning, along with other scholars of German nationality, was interned. Bailey saw to the publication of Henning’s book Sogdica, for which he wrote a brief preface, and assisted the War Office’s Postal Censorship division with translation of some less familiar languages such as Georgian and Kurdish. Of greater importance was the work he did at the Research Institute of International Affairs housed at Balliol College Oxford and later in London, where at the invitation of Arnold Toynbee he joined the team of experts whose work it was to study foreign language newspapers for information of strategic importance; Bailey’s contribution was mainly in Albanian and Armenian, although at the end of the war he continued to give assistance with Russian and Ossetic….
At the same time Ossetic studies received a boost when Bailey convinced the University authorities to engage a native speaker of the less well-known and more archaic Digoron dialect to come to Cambridge as informant. Bailey had a special interest in epic poetry and during the course of his life read most of the major works of this genre in their original languages. At this time he worked on the Ossetic Nart tales. In 1966 he travelled to the Caucasus where he amazed an audience by addressing them in both Ossetic dialects. In the same year he represented the United Kingdom with two others at the eight hundredth anniversary of the great Georgian poet Shota Rustaveli in Tbilisi. On this occasion he was presented with a national costume and sword of which he was very proud. He is to be seen in this garb in the painting of him by Ronald Way which hangs in Queens’ College. When the portrait was unveiled in 1972, Bailey was hailed as the College’s “greatest scholar since Erasmus” … Other initiatives of Bailey outside the mainstream of his work included bringing to Cambridge native speakers of Abaza and Tibetan, the former a Caucasian language which interested Bailey because of its unusually large number of consonants including some which at that time were being postulated for Proto-Indoeuropean.
As Bailey had experienced little formal teaching during his own apprentice years, it is not surprising that he had little idea of teaching methods or the needs of an undergraduate coming to the study of a language at an elementary level. … The lectures bore a marked similarity to his written work and chiefly consisted of studies of the etymologies of individual words. Thus, starting from a line of the Veda, he would give the root of a word and proceed to discuss its connections; he would linger on Iranian cognates often bringing his recent Khotanese discoveries into the discussion. Bailey prepared his lectures with care and they were mostly held in his set of rooms in Queens’ College, already so filled with books, journals and manuscripts that there was barely room to move. … Bailey always treated his students, even the less capable ones, with great courtesy and displayed disarming modesty in assuming that they would always follow his arguments, often adding, ‘as you know’ to re-assure them. He liked to have his students and friends to tea and would always provide a freshly baked cake which he would cut up and serve while conversing about his current work….
After he ceased work on Khotanese, he devoted much of his remaining time to studying Iranian loanwords in Caucasian languages and went back to revise his 1933 edition of the Pahlavi Greater Bundahišn . This was finished in 1989. Unfortunately by this time his eyesight had deteriorated to the point that he needed large magnifying apparatus to work and his handwriting was becoming almost impossible to read. In the only copy of his text, which was intended for photographic reproduction, he tried to insert the many words in Pahlavi script in his own hand thereby rendering it illegible. For this reason it has never been published. As it became increasingly difficult for him to commit his unabated flow of thoughts to paper, his frustration was to some extent alleviated by the presence of scholars working and visiting at Brooklands House; at least he was able to talk about his ideas. He maintained his independence until close to the end of his life despite the worsening of his vision and hearing. To the end, however, physical deterioration did not impair his intellectual activity. Robert Coleman in his speech at Bailey’s funeral describes a visit he paid to his former teacher in Addenbrooke’s Hospital a few days before his death, during which the old man “suddenly launched into a fifteen-minute exposition of some new etymologies that had occurred to him”, concluding with his last recorded words, “‘I think I shall write this up when I come out; it should make a small monograph’.”
I stand in awe of this man; the energy and determination involved in composing a long Sanskrit poem or learning Georgian by transcribing the entire Man in the Panther Skin are almost incredible, let alone learning all those languages, investigating their historical relationships, and promoting their study. And you could mine the material for several novels out of his life; Henry James could have made a brilliant novelette just out of the incident of his rendering his long-simmered Pahlavi edition unpublishable by trying to improve it. Here’s to you, H.W.; if there’s an afterlife, I hope you’re learning its languages and teaching it both dialects of Ossetian.