December 25, 2007

One Christmas too long

Happy Christmas from Language Log to all our readers. I'm spending the time with family in southern England, where I was planning to look up an old friend (who had been my very first PhD student, though he was many years my senior): the distinguished scholar of Cariban languages Desmond Derbyshire. I hadn't seen him for a long time. He hadn't been answering email messages, but he always traveled a lot, and I just thought he was away from his Hampshire home, perhaps in Brazil (he still visited sometimes, despite being retired from his work there). But I had waited one Christmas too long. Des died quietly in his sleep in a hospital a few days ago, before I could track him down.

The people who worked with him on language analysis and bible translation in the Summer Institute of Linguistics have sent me many consoling messages about Des having gone to a better place. These didn't actually console me much; but that's not the point, is it? Uttering those words consoled them. I do not share their religion, but I do like them — I think the many SIL members I have met over the years are some of the nicest and kindest human beings I have ever interacted with — and I do share their respect and love for Des.

He was a wonderful human being as well as a superb linguist. And his work was very important — more important than most linguists will ever do in their lives; he documented a whole endangered language that otherwise might have gone into history unrecorded, and worked effectively for the welfare of the Amazonian tribe who speak it. They are now flourishing, as they were not when he first arrived in the 1950s. He translated the entire New Testament for them: they can read the Christmas story in their own language this Christmas time if they wish. If they have heard of his passing, I know they will be thinking about him, as I will, because he was their friend, and often a resident of their village, for over fifty years. I wish I had been able to see him one more time.

[See now the obituary for Derbyshire posted on the LINGUIST List.]

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at December 25, 2007 06:24 AM