Philologist and dialectologist, born on 31 October 1855 at Thackley, near Bradford, where he grew up in poverty. He began work at 6 and was largely self-taught. Through part-time schooling at Saltaire and attendance at night school and the Bradford Mechanics' Institute, he learned enough to start a night school at home. His mother was a major influence on him. Although she regarded herself as a Churchwoman, the family worshipped at Windhill PM chapel, Woodend, where Joseph attended Sunday School, organized a lending library and practised his shorthand by taking down the sermons. Long after he had left the area he continued his interest in the chapel and in 1925 gave his support to its centenary celebrations.
Having saved £40, in 1876 he made his way to Heidelberg, studied Maths and German until his money ran out and on his return obtained teaching posts at Springfield School, Bradford, then at the WM Grove School at Wrexham and finally at Margate. In 1882 he passed the intermediate examination for a London BA, before returning to Heidelberg, where he was persuaded to abandon Maths for comparative philology, in which he showed outstanding ability. He achieved a PhD in 1885 and his standing as a philologist was confirmed by his translation of a German text on Indo-German, published in 1888.
Returning to London in 1887, he was appointed to an Oxford lectureship in 1888 and began work on completing the English Dialect Dictionary begun by W.W. Skeat on behalf of the English Dialect Society. It was published in six large volumes in 1905, at Wright's own expense. He succeeded Max Müller as professor of comparative philology in 1901 and published textbooks on German, Old English, Gothic and Greek. He was elected fellow of the Briish Academy in 1904 and received honorary degrees from Durham, Aberdeen, Leeds, Dublin and Oxford. One of his Oxford students, on whom he had considerable influence, was J.R.R. Tolkien. He died of pneumonia in Oxford on 27 February 1930.