Tomás Navarro Tomás was one of the great figures in Spanish linguistics of the 20th century. He obtained his Ph.D. in philosophy in 1909 and joined the Cuerpo Facultativo de Archiveros, Bibliotecarios y Arqueólogos (archivists, librarians, and archaeologists). He was one of Menendez Pidal’s first collaborators at the Center for Historical Studies (CEH). Both linguists, along with other colleagues, traveled to Asturias and Leon in the summer of 1911, in search of romances and dialectal phonetic sounds. They focused their research on the origins and development of the different languages and literatures in Spain, combining the use of the historical grammar with the study of the living language in their analysis of the romancero genre. These linguists used in their fieldwork instruments, newly invented, for the recording and reproduction of phonetic sounds.
Between 1912 and 1913, he visited the leading European phonetic laboratories and founded and directed the Laboratory of Experimental Phonetics in the CEH. He and his students conducted a series of important research studies on phonetics and dialectology, the main one being the Manual de pronunciación española, published in 1918, translated into German (1923), and adapted into English (1926). This work contains a precise description of the variety of phonetic sounds of Castilian Spanish and their prosodic framing in the speech.
Later, the Archivo de la Palabra (World Archives) was born as an outgrowth of the work of that laboratory. It aimed to collect the different varieties of speech, music and traditional songs, as well as the literary language, and to record the voices of prominent figures. Between 1931 and 1935, the CEH released 25 recordings in three sets that included the voices of scientists and technologists, humanists, writers, artists, and politicians of the Second Republic. Navarro Tomás also encouraged the development of a Linguistic Atlas of the Iberian Peninsula (ALPI), which was intended to collect the linguistic varieties in Spain and Portugal.
He was also one of the promoters of CEH’s Revista de Filología Española, and was managing editor since it was founded in 1914 until 1925. In 1927, he was hired as visiting professor at Stanford University in California, and lectured at several American universities.
His management skills were instrumental for his work as director of the CEH’s library (1922 -1936), and, after the outbreak of Civil War, as director of the National Library, and vice president of the Junta de Protección del Patrimonio Artístico (Board for the Protection of the Artistic Heritage), where he did a splendid job working under hard conditions.
After the defeat of the Republican forces, he crossed the Pyrenees with the family of the poet Antonio Machado and moved to the United States, where he lived until his death.