Among the red brick turrets and stained glass of north Oxford they stand out like ziggurats; four blocks of early 1970s flats now approaching middle age, their reinforced concrete walls a little pock-marked and rain-streaked, the annealed glass of their stairwells no longer gleaming. They have indeed become the weathered cliffs' of the architect's original vision.

To many people, the flats at Thackley End seem ugly. An estate agent, choosing his words carefully, recently described one as a design statement of its time'. Peter Howard and Helena Webster included them in their book Oxford: An Architectural Guide (Ellipsis, 1999), but their verdict "a fluent essay in the late-brutalist aesthetic" is a somewhat back-handed compliment.

But fans of modernist architecture see things to admire: the curving patterns of terracotta tiles on the stairs; the floor-to-ceiling windows that fill the rooms with light; the balconies with railings that bring to mind an ocean liner about to set sail.

The communal gardens, with their century-old copper beeches, laurel shrubbery, holly hedges, and moss-covered walls, are peaceful and lovely.

Thackley End was an early example of purpose-built housing association flats, built by Abacus Housing Society as affordable accommodation for people of modest means in a part of Oxford dominated by huge Gothic mansions and university buildings. In an arrangement that was unusual at the time, the occupants of the 55 flats shared the freehold, and responsibility for their management.

And that, I thought, was the extent of the place's historical interest, until a chance conversation threw some light on the origin of the name Thackley' and the people who used to live in the house that was knocked down so the flats could be built.

In 1904, the eminent Oxford University professor of comparative philology, Joseph Wright (1855-1930), and his wife, the folklorist Elizabeth Mary Wright (1863-1958), moved into a beautiful new Georgian-style house on one of the last-remaining plots of freehold land on Banbury Road, naming it Thackley' after Wright's birthplace in Yorkshire. No expense had been spared: the frames for the large windows were made of teak and the roof slates, "almost as big as gravestones", were brought from Yorkshire, and fixed with oak pegs by specialist workmen from the county.

Elizabeth Wright later recalled: "Although the Banbury Road was not so infra dig. as Park Town, it was still hardly Oxford'. I remember after we were settled in our new home being asked by a real University' lady at a dinner-party: How do you like living so far out?'"

Joseph Wright is remembered today chiefly for an extraordinary feat of scholarship, his editorship of the English Dialect Dictionary (OUP, 1898-1905).

This ambitious undertaking ran to six volumes and brought together the notations on 500,000 slips of paper, each bearing a word, its dialect pronunciation, and the district in which it was found. Wright also wrote several other introductory grammars for Germanic languages. Elizabeth co-authored some of these as well as writing Rustic Speech and Folklore (OUP, 1913).

But the Wrights did not devote all their time to scholarship. They were held in great affection by generations of Oxford students because of their hospitality and kindness. For 25 years they held Sunday Yorkshire teas' at Thackley, to which they invited between 12 and 18 young men and also women, as they were keen supporters of female education.

These occasions - held under a quince tree in the garden in summer - had both an academic and social purpose. Wright helped students to find their feet' in Oxford, encouraged them in their studies, discussed topical philological issues, and told funny stories about his research on dialect. Many were foreign students.

Writing to a colleague at a German university, Wright said: "We are always very pleased to see foreigners, because a little kindness goes a long way to any one in a strange land!"

Wright's most famous student was J R R Tolkien. One of Tolkien's important formative experiences while at school had been reading Wright's Grammar of the Gothic Language. This, and later his personal contact with Wright, encouraged him to develop his love of languages, and ultimately to invent his own.

Wright's desire to encourage scholarship in young people probably stemmed from his own remarkable struggle to reach his intellectual potential in unpromising circumstances. Incredible though it seems, this professor, who had an in-depth command of at least 15 languages, did even not learn to read and write in English until he was 15.

Born in 1855 in Thackley, a village near Bradford, to poor parents, Wright went to work at the age of six as a donkey-boy, taking tools from quarry-men to the local blacksmith to be sharpened.

At seven he began working at Sir Titus Salt's famous woollen mill at Saltaire, as a doffer in the spinning department, his job being to remove full bobbins from the spindles and replace them with empty ones. Even at this young age he showed a strong desire to get on, earning extra money by sweeping up and selling horse manure and performing other small tasks.

There was a mill school but Wright only attended part time and did not learn much more than the alphabet, basic arithmetic, and a few passages from improving' works. Looking back on this time, he said: "Reading and writing, for me, were as remote as any of the sciences."

He moved to another mill and an apprenticeship as a wool-sorter, a skilled job that paid much better. During the Franco-Prussian War he used to listen to other workmen reading accounts of battles from the newspapers and wished he could read too. So he began teaching himself, using the Bible and John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress.

He attended night school and worked through his midday dinner hour and late into the night, moving on from English to study French, German, and other subjects. At 18, he set up his own night school to help other disadvantaged students.

By 1876, when he was 21, he had managed to save up £40 and decided to study for a term at Heidelberg University in Germany, walking there from Antwerp to save money.

On his return to England he found employment as a teacher and continued his studies, returning to Germany in 1882 where he spent six years at the universities of Heidelberg, Freiburg-in-Breisgau, and Leipzig.

During this time he studied at least 12 languages, including Sanskrit, Latin, Greek, Old Bulgarian, Old Icelandic, and Anglo-Saxon. His PhD was entitled: Qualitative and Quantitative Changes of the Indo-Germanic Vowel System in Greek.

It seems he was blessed with a photographic memory. Much later, he wrote: "What I learn, I never forget. There are not many memories like mine."

But he was also extremely hard-working. He advised his students: " remember you cannot become expert at anything without a good deal of work. You must make up your mind to face drudgery."

In 1891 Wright became deputy professor of comparative philology at Oxford and in 1901 full professor, whilst working on his magnum opus, the English Dialect Dictionary. Having grown up speaking Bradford dialect, he retained an affectionate respect for forms of grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation that were specific to certain localities, and wanted to ensure that this rich linguistic heritage was recorded in a systematic way for present and future scholars.

He wrote letters to local newspapers around the country appealing for help with the research, and financed the publication through obtaining subscriptions from notable public figures.

Virginia Woolf admired Wright and he may have inspired her character Mr Brook in The Pargiters; she was certainly thinking of him in the 1932 diary entry when she noted: " the triumph of learning is that it leaves something done solidly for ever. Everybody knows now about dialect, owing to his dixery."

In the biography she wrote about her husband after his death, Elizabeth Mary Wright mentioned a surprising and rather contradictory aspect of Wright's attitude to language: "It may have been partly his love of verbal exactness, coupled with the grammarian's respect for language, that made any exaggerated expression, or common colloquialism - apart from dialect - distasteful to him. He was not given to exclamatory phrases and he disliked slang of any sort, and did not even take the trouble to learn the meaning of modern slang words which are creeping into the standard language, especially since the War."

The workaholic Wrights occasionally took time off to go walking on the Yorkshire Moors or in the Black Forest or to visit friends in Heidelberg. Wright followed cricket and football, supporting Yorkshire teams, and after 1926 enjoyed listening to the wireless though, his wife said: "he could not endure jazz', or the caperings of modern composers".

He was a keen gardener, cultivating fruit trees and bushes in the extensive gardens of Thackley. Elizabeth wrote: "We have lived to find great satisfaction and pleasure in the garden we made for ourselves, not forgetting the beneficent régime of the Oxford climate, which covers new walls with moss, and makes tree-trunks hoary before their time."

The great sadness of the Wrights' lives was the loss of both their children: Willie Boy, at the age of three, to what may have been anaphylactic shock from an insect-bite; and later their daughter Mary, who succumbed to appendicitis at ten. Perhaps their keen interest in the welfare of other young people was partly attributable to this loss.

Wright resigned his chair at Oxford in 1924, an occasion that prompted many newspapers to recount the story of this exceptional self-made man, under headlines such as Romance of Self-taught Mill Boy'. He continued studying and writing until his health failed. Elizabeth bought him a revolving wooden shelter that enabled him to sit out in his beloved garden even in winter: "It gave him real happiness to sit there, in the middle of the lawn, when the sun shone, warmly wrapped up and screened from any cold wind," she remembered.

The end came on February 27, 1930 when he succumbed to pneumonia. Elizabeth recalled his last moments: "There was only one thing more which had to be done, a last message to leave behind on the last day of all: and so he gathered up his strength in the midst of a long stretch of silence, and framed his lips to say to me quite clearly the one word Dictionary'."

With thanks to: Oxfordshire Studies, William Horwood, Gill Hewett, and Christian McLening.