LINGUIST List 19.1

Thu Jan 03 2008

All: Obituary: Desmond Derbyshire (1924-2007)

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        1.    Geoffrey K. Pullum, Obituary: Desmond Derbyshire (1924-2007)

Message 1: Obituary: Desmond Derbyshire (1924-2007)
Date: 30-Dec-2007
From: Geoffrey K. Pullum <>
Subject: Obituary: Desmond Derbyshire (1924-2007)
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Desmond Cyril Derbyshire, pioneering scholar of Amazonian linguistics,died peacefully in his sleep at 5:30 a.m. on December 19th, 2007,aged 83. In his distinguished academic career he had never held aregular faculty position in a university; his work in linguisticswas divided between linguistic fieldwork in Amazonia, translation ofthe bible into the Hixkaryana language, writing and editing booksand papers about the languages of lowland Amazonia and the Guianahighlands, and serving in educational and administrative roles forthe Summer Institute of Linguistics.

Des was born in the county of Durham, in the north of England, onSeptember 10th, 1924. He did not go to university after leavingsecondary school, but trained as an accountant. It was while hewas working as a chartered accountant in the early 1950s that afriend working as a missionary in South America invited Des andhis wife Grace to come and visit for a holiday, and they accepted.During their holiday in the jungle of what is now Guyana, somethinghappened to Des that was literally life-changing.

One afternoon Des decided to walk back on his own from one village toanother, but instead got completely lost. Attempting to retrace hissteps was no use; he couldn't find the point at which he had strayedfrom the usual path. He wandered about until long after nightfall,and began to be very concerned indeed. There was no sign of anypaths, or of human habitation anywhere in the area, and he had beenwandering for miles and miles. He had no food or drink or survivalaids of any kind, and he was hopelessly lost in trackless forest.He spent the night amid the alien sounds of South American tropicaljungle, well aware that he might die there and never be found. And inthe privacy of his prayers, he made a firm promise: if he could bedelivered from this situation, to get back to Grace and his friends,he would dedicate the rest of his life to God's service.

Morning finally came, and something became apparent to Des that hehad not been able to notice the previous night: within a quarter ofa mile of where he was, a river was now visible through the trees.Rivers are thoroughfares in the South American jungle. He made hisway down there and sat on the bank. Later that morning he was foundby people who were out in a boat looking for him.

Des didn't have to admit to anyone the promise he had silently madeto his God during the night. But any commitment he ever made wasone that he kept. In his own view, he had placed himself under anirrevocable obligation regarding the remainder of his life. He wentback to England, gave up his job as an accountant, took the SIL'straining course in basic field linguistics and bible translation,and went with Grace to Brazil, to live with the Hixkaryana tribe inthe village of Kasawa by the Nhamunda river (a northern tributaryflowing into the Amazon from the Guiana highlands).

Living conditions were primitive, and no outsiders knew anythingmuch about the language other than its Southern Guana Carib geneticaffiliation. At the time there were only about a hundred speakers,and the society was demoralized and in a state of collapse fromintroduced diseases. Between 1959 and 1975, Des and Grace lived withthe Hixkaryana for extended periods totalling over seven years, andworked on learning the language. The rest of the time was spent indoing descriptive work and bible translation at SIL centers, or backin England raising funds. (SIL members are expected to support theirwork with donations raised through their home churches, and suppliesa modest supplementary stipend only if donations prove inadequatefor even a minimal standard of living.)

The most surprising story Des told of the long period of work in theHixkaryana village concerned a day in November 1965. He had wokenup early and begun work on linguistic analysis as usual, but todayhe heard the unexpected distant whine of the engine of the Norsemanfloatplane that the Summer Institute of Linguistics used for travelaround the Amazon region of Brazil. He thought it was very strangethat the plane would be coming to the village without having notifiedhim previously. He watched it circle and land in front of his house.Once the motor was silent and the pilot's door was open, Des asked thepilot why he had come. The SIL pilot grinned and said "I've got RobertKennedy on board." Des looked in the passenger seat in the back,and sure enough, there was New York's US Senator Robert F. Kennedy.

Bobby Kennedy spent three days with Des among the Hixkaryana,sharing the daily lives of the people in the village and getting toknow Des and Grace and their work. Kennedy was an excellent guest,participating fully in village life with its various hardships andnever complaining. One afternoon, as Des and Bobbie were bathing inthe Nhamunda river, Kennedy asked Des: "What's the name of this river?"

"The Nhamunda", Des told him.

"I want to remember the name," said Kennedy, "because just now,right here in this river, I have decided to run for President of theUnited States."

(And so he did, announcing his candidacy late, in March 1968, when theweakness of incumbent president Johnson's support was fully clear.He was assassinated less than three months later, immediately afterwinning the California primary.)

As Kennedy prepared to board the plane on the third day to leave,he turned to Des and said "You know, a lot of people would say thatthese people are not worth the bother of spending your life, with allof your education, in this isolated jungle spot." And he went on tosay how much he admired Des for his work, and for believing that theHixkaryana were worth the bother.

Des did indeed think the Hixkaryana were worth the bother. He workedon for another ten years in Brazil, and completed a translation ofthe entire New Testament, sending it off for (anonymous) publicationunder the title "Khoryenkom Karyehtana: O Novo Testamento na LinguaHixkaryana". Then in 1975 he decided it was time to become betteracquainted with current linguistics, and he applied to do a Ph.D. atUniversity College London. Special dispensation was needed fromthe University of London for him to be admitted to read for thePh.D. (he had no university degrees at all), but Neil Smith, head ofthe theoretically-inclined Linguistics Section of the Department ofPhonetics and Linguistics at University College London, decided toadmit him because of his linguistic training and interesting languagebackground. And on Neil's suggestion, although Des was many years mysenior, I became Des's de facto dissertation supervisor (officially,I could not supervise a doctoral student, because I was a temporarylecturer, not a member of the Senate).

I have never known a more dedicated, conscientious, meticulousgraduate student. The knowledge he had brought with him was a richresource, and turned out to interest me greatly. During 1975 Ihappened to have made a study of all the literature I could find onlanguages that supposedly had object-initial basic constituent order incanonical clause types, and I had concluded that in none of them wasthe basic order genuinely object-initial. There were no languages,I had decided, in which fixed constituent order rather than case wasthe key indicator of grammatical relations in simple clauses, andthe normal order, in contexts not conditioned by special discoursefactors, was OSV or OVS.

I mentioned this in a lecture at UCL in the fall of 1975, in the firstfew weeks of Des's first term as a graduate student. Des raiseda hand and said politely that he thought the language he had beenworking on might be an exception, since OVS was its normal order.My reaction was that it would probably turn out to be an SOV languagewith optional subject postposing, but we would talk later and try todetermine the facts.

As we went over the issue carefully together in the following weeks,it became clear to me that Hixkaryana was no partial exception; thiswas the first rock-solid counterexample. And investigating it furtherlooked like a much more interesting prospect than trying to protectmy own previous opinions from being shown by my student to be wrong.

Hixkaryana, it turned out, has fairly strict word order. Transitiveclauses have a tightly bound OV verb phrase constituent that isusually followed by the subject NP. Des had actually said so ina dense 1961 paper I had not seen (IJAL 27, 125-142), packed withobscure formulae in the style of Kenneth Pike's framework, tagmemics,of which I knew little. My speculation about SOV order being morebasic was completely refuted: the evidence pointed the other way.SOV order was not common, and when found was generally accompaniedby clear signs (such as focus particles) that the discourse contextwas special. SOV order was the result of subject fronting for emphasisor contrast, not normal or neutral.

Texts were available from which the facts could be confirmed: Deshad published a collection of transcribed stories by native speakersunder the title "Textos Hixkaryana" in 1965. But in addition,a well-concordanced comparative bilingual text was available: thefirst bound copies of "Khoryenkom Karyehtana" had arrived from Brazil.The translation had been checked throughout in consultation with nativespeakers, who approved the grammar and style years before Des evenknew that OVS order was supposed to be unattested, so its preparationwas not influenced by any linguist's view. We picked out the firsthundred transitive clauses from the modern English version of the Gospelof Matthew, and counted the frequency of OVS constituent order in thecorresponding sentences of the Hixkaryana translation. It surprised usboth: the frequency was one hundred percent.

I encouraged Des to write a squib for Linguistic Inquiry pointing outwhat appeared to be the first case of a fixed-order OVS language.I gave some advice about the outline and style of such a paper,but very little help was needed; Des wrote impeccable scientificprose, and the squib was accepted immediately. It appeared in 1977(LI 8.590-599). I also persuaded Des to offer a paper summarizing thesyntactic typology of Hixkaryana for presentation at the LinguisticsAssociation of Great Britain (spring 1977). Since he was away inBrazil when the meeting took place, it was my privilege to presentit on his behalf.

A short report appeared in the Sunday Times on the fact that anOVS language had been discovered, and the next week, to my greatirritation, a letter appeared from someone who said that this wasnothing new, it occurred in German. The point was apparently not aneasy one to get across to the public at large: it was not about whatwas permitted, but about what was typical. No one could think it wasnormal in German to tell your sweetheart "Dich liebe ich" rather than"Ich liebe dich." In Hixkaryana, OVS was the basic, ordinary orderof phrases, not just a sometimes permissible stylistic variation.So Des and I both learned a little about the difficulty of presentinglinguistics to the public at large.

John Hemmings' important historical work "Red Gold: The Conquest ofthe Brazilian Indians" came out in 1978, and the Sunday Times gota conservative literary critic to review it. Des and I were bothutterly astonished by the result. The review began by describing acharming 17th-century Portuguese comic opera he had recently seen, andnoted that the culture of Portugal's prosperity at the time had beenfunded by earnings from brutal overseas conquests; then it describedsome of Hemmings' grim catalog of genocide; and finally it raisedthe question of whether the Portuguese slaughter of the BrazilianIndians had been justified, and presented the opinion that it had,because their low cultural level and "deeply uninteresting lives"did not come up to the standard of the architecture and music thatWestern civilization had produced.

Des and I were quite appalled, and we both sent letters to theeditor. Mine was a polemic condemning the critic as a evil andignorant racist. Des's letter was very different. He wrote movinglyof having lived among Brazilian Indians and having valued them asfriends and teachers and learned a great deal from them, and concludedsimply that the reviewer was mistaken. There was no bitterness in it.The Sunday Times printed Des's letter but not mine. Des liked totell this story (so Dan Everett tells me) because was proud of havingemerged (to his surprise) the winner in a straight contest with me.I like the story too: I felt that it was the right decision for theSunday Times to print Des's letter, with its first-hand experience,generosity, and calm reason. And it taught me a little about the powerof Des's quiet and gentle manner in dealing with people and issues.

An announcement came out some time around then announcing a new seriesof descriptive monographs, to be written in accord with a typologicalchecklist format devised by Bernard Comrie and Norval Smith. I pointedout to Des that this would be a straightforward way to get a referencegrammar of Hixkaryana published, and he immediately decided totake on the task. Meanwhile he was developing certain typologicaland theoretical ideas that he wanted to explore separately in hisdoctoral dissertation --- nobody knew anything about what to expectin the syntactic patterns of an object-initial language. Now he hadtwo book-length projects going.

One day in the early summer of 1979, Des told me he was going tocollect the bound copies of his dissertation from the Universityof London's bindery. On his way back, bringing me one of the boundcopies, he picked up his mail at the department office, and foundthat Lingua had sent him the first author's copies of the monographhe had completed for them --- it was number one in the new LinguaDescriptive Series --- so he gave me one of those as well. Just intime to catch a plane the next day: he was off to North Dakota toteach in SIL's summer program.

Des had managed, without any fuss, to complete the Ph.D., publisha new book (an entirely different work), and leave for a teachingassignment on another continent, all within twenty-four hours.

It crossed my mind at the time that this is how one might imaginea life might go if it were being directed and scheduled by anomniscient and omnipotent higher power. But on balance I think thatto assume divine intervention at two different binderies would be todownplay Des's calm and efficient planning of his life. He was alwaysreliable, always met deadlines and expectations. And he worked witha discipline, accuracy, and intelligence that permitted him to writeexcellent material without going through numerous drafts.

I had obtained grant funding for Des to work on Hixkaryana, andsubsequent to his completing the doctorate we prepared anothergrant application to explore other languages of the Amazon basinand nearby areas to see if there were more object-initial languagesto be discovered. The project was funded, and produced results.We found information on about a dozen cases of languages virtuallyunknown to linguistic science that appeared to have OVS or OSVbasic word order in the clause. Some were Cariban, but some werein other language families of Amazonia. Des went off to Brazil totrack down obscure literature in Portuguese and unpublished workby SIL members in Brazil. I obtained permission to work in theBritish Museum Reading Room so that I could consult the work ofa German anthropologist, Koch-Gruenberg, who in the 19th centuryhad taken down data from a clearly OVS Cariban language, Hianacoto.We produced a joint article on object-initial languages thatappeared in 1981 (IJAL 47.192-214), and we began work on a seriesof volumes to be called "Handbook of Amazonian Languages" (HAL).

At the end of the first year of our grant we had nine publications andan impressive record of achievement to present to the Social ScienceResearch Council, which duly made its decision on renewal: fundingfor the second year was denied, on the grounds that we had done somuch work. The idea was, apparently, that those who made significantprogress should have their funding stopped. I was furious at thismyopic decision (the decision strongly influenced me in making mydecision to give up my job in Britain and work in California for mostof the next three decades), and I felt I had let Des down, since thegrant was currently his only source of income. But Des, always calmerand more centered than I knew how to be, accepted the decision with nobitterness at all, and returned to work for SIL. He became a senioradministrator in the academic branch of SIL based in Dallas, Texas.

The work that Des started in 1977 basically established Amazonianlinguistics as a contentful subfield. With regard to syntax, at least,hardly anything was widely known or available concerning any Amazonianlanguage in the mid-1970s. Things are very different today. By 1998,through long-distance collaboration and occasional visits, Des and Ihad edited and published four volumes of HAL. All owed most of theircontent to Des, who patiently worked with SIL members to encouragethem to write grammatical descriptions and persuade them to finish anddeliver, and meticulously edited and revised their work. My role wasvery much secondary (desk research for the general material on Amazoniaand its languages, and writing most of the introductions to the fourvolumes, and dealing with the publisher).

One contribution that Des solicited for volume 1 was Daniel Everett's200-page description of a genetically isolated language, Piraha, whichhas since become very well known through Everett's work. A numberof other contributions were similarly of almost monograph length,and described some fascinating and genetically diverse languages inconsiderable detail.

All of Des's share of the royalties from those volumes went to SIL'swork on Amazonian linguistics, so I donated all of my share to afund for the support of Amazonian linguistics at the University ofCalifornia, Santa Cruz, where it covered various occasional smallgrants, including fellowships for a couple of Brazilian students whoattended the 1991 Linguistic Institute.

In due course others began to contribute to the developing subfieldof Amazonian linguistics, some directly influenced by Des and otherscoming to the subject independently. An important collection ofpapers on the lowland Amazonian linguistics was published in 1990under the editorship of Doris Payne, a dynamic SIL member (now afull professor of linguistics at the University of Oregon) from whomDes had obtained two excellent contributions to HAL. Des tried hardto find Brazilian academic linguists to write descriptive materialon Amazonian languages, but it was not until 1998 that we at lastmanaged to get one: a major contribution from a non-SIL linguist,by Alexandra Aikhenvald (a Russian-born Brazilian citizen) appearedin volume 4 of HAL. Brazilian linguistics students began to apply toAmerican graduate programs (some went to MIT to work with Ken Hale).In 2000, Lucy Seki, whose work I first heard of from Des, became thefirst Brazilian-born linguist ever to publish a book-length grammarof an Amazonian language (Kamaiura).

Probably the most significant effect of Des's work on the field atlarge was that volume 1 of HAL came to the attention of the Australianlinguist Robert M. W. Dixon, previously known for work on Australianaboriginal and Austronesian languages, and (so he has told me) hefound the linguistic material so fascinating that he resolved tostart working in Amazonia himself. And over the next decade thatis what he did. The survey of Amazonian languages Dixon jointlyauthored with Aikhenvald for CUP came out in 1999, and his book onthe Jarawara language of Amazonia won the LSA's Leonard BloomfieldBook Award in 2005.

In the last part of his life, Des moved to Hampshire in England,where a donor had made a house available for him. There his wifeGrace died, on September 7, 1997. It was a major blow, depriving himof the person who had been his closest companion for over fifty years.From then on, while still being involved in academic linguistics (hewas scheduled to be in Holland on January 30th, 2008, for the doctoralpromotion meeting on Henk Courtz's dissertation about the Cariblanguage), he spent most of his time working on a Hixkaryanatranslation of the Old Testament, making occasional visits to theHixkaryana settlement in Brazil to consult with native speakers.

His work with the Hixkaryana was successful in several ways.Linguistically it was extraordinarily productive and valuable.With regard to translating the Bible, it achieved a published result.And as regards the missionary work, at least some of the tribebegan to identify themselves as Christians. Des once showed me(and translated into English at my suggestion) a lengthy diary keptin Hixkaryana by a close friend of his, Uchunu, who had become illwith a serious condition (a cancer from which he eventually died), andmade a long journey away from the Nhamunda to get medical treatment inthe city of Belem, and later in Manaus. Uchunu wrote of encounteringPortuguese-speaking Brazilians at a hostel who taunted him for being anignorant savage out of the jungle, and wrote with clear satisfaction ofbeing able to tell them with pride that in fact he was a Christian.Of course, simple human respect should never depend on anyone'sreligion. But it would be less than fully respectful to Uchunu toignore his own view: he saw his standing as a practicing Christianas a significant and positive part of his sense of self and value.

Regardless of one's position on missionary work, one has to viewthe Hixkaryana as lucky that their first extended interaction withthe modern world was this gentle missionary couple, Des and Grace.As is well known, many Amerindian groups in South America have beenfar less fortunate. Des loved the Hixkaryana people; he respectedtheir intelligence, kindness, generosity, and practical skills;he delighted in their language; and he cared about their welfare.They have done well in the fifty years that Des knew them, and theirsociety is far more robust than it was when Des and Grace arrived.From a demoralized population in danger of extinction in 1959, withonly about a hundred members, few children, and high infant mortality,they grew to a population of about 350 in all by the time I met Des,and today there are about 600, with access to modern medicine, frequentintermarriage with the Waiwai tribe, and high literacy rates, anda school with Hixkaryana teachers, and a government-assisted Brazilnut business.

Des's repeated visits to the Hixkaryana never stopped until he wastoo unwell to travel. If there had been enough time, I am sure hewould have completed a translation of the Old Testament for them,and also further works on the grammar of their fascinating languagefor us linguists. But his time ran out.

I will miss him personally, and so I think will everyone who knew him.I never met anyone who knew him who didn't also like him and respecthim. The Hixkaryana have lost their closest external friend andadvocate, but because of his efforts their language and linguisticculture will never disappear unrecorded as so many Brazilian indigenouslanguages did. SIL and the Wycliffe Bible Translators have losta dedicated administrator and translator. We linguists have losta top fieldworker, an eminent scholar of Cariban languages, a veryfine descriptive and comparative linguist, and a wonderful human being.

Linguistic Field(s): Not Applicable