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Desmond C. Derbyshire (1924-2007)

Desmond C. Derbyshire, 2004Desmond Derbyshire, “Des” to most who knew him, passed away in his sleep December 19, 2007. The linguistics world knew him best as the first person to bring an unambiguously object-initial language to the attention of the academic world, while the Hixkaryána people in the jungles of Brazil knew him as a long-term friend and spiritual advisor who worked with them over a period of 45 years.

Object-initial language—really?

One of the first classes Des took for his Ph.D. studies was under Geoffrey Pullum. Pullum had recently made a thorough examination of claims of object-initial languages, i.e., where the object of the sentence (as in “dogs eat MEAT”) was normally the first element of a sentence (as in “MEAT eat dogs”). He had found that none of the claims withstood close scrutiny. So in class, he felt confident to make the statement, “No object-initial languages exist.”

At that point, Des somewhat hesitantly raised his hand and said “Sir, I speak such a language.” It took a couple of weeks to convince Pullum of the truth of the claim, but Des’ evidence and data were solid.

This evidence included a text collection that Des had published in a little-known journal in 1965, but also an unexpected data source—the newly translated Hixkaryána New Testament. This volume had been carefully crafted to conform to normal Hixkaryána speech patterns and word order. Neither the Hixkaryána nor Des had a theoretical axe to grind, being unaware of the linguistic debate. Pullum and Derbyshire did a quick check of the first 100 clauses in the book of Matthew and found to their astonishment that every single one of these clauses was object-initial.

Life-changing direction

An early experience in what is now Guyana in South America changed Des’ life dramatically. Des was born in Durham County, England, and trained to be an accountant. He married Grace, the charming lady who was to be his life-long companion. To all appearances he was set for a long-term career as a chartered accountant. Then he and Grace were invited by missionary friends to join them in their jungle location for a vacation.

Walking from one village to another, Des became hopelessly lost. After wandering in the dark for hours, he finally gave up, but promised God that he would dedicate his life to Him if he survived. When morning came, he saw a river flowing nearby, invisible in the darkness of night. Des sat down on its bank and in a few hours was picked up by some passing canoes. He was not one to ever make a promise lightly, even one no one knew about, and he followed up on this.

Researching Hixkaryána

Des trained at the SIL training center in Great Britain in principles of linguistics and translation, and was assigned to work with the remote Hixkaryána people in northern Brazil. He and Grace first entered the villages in 1959. The Hixkaryána were not a prosperous people when they first arrived. They numbered only about 100, and were demoralized as a group. Measles brought in by Europeans had decimated their population, as with so many other Amazonian groups. Des got to know them not just as exotic people speaking a strange language but, as the years went by, he developed deep, lasting, and respectful relationships with them. He was the first to write down their language and develop a practical orthography. At their request, he helped them translate the entire New Testament.

Des was keen on researching the intricacies of the Hixkaryána language, and published a sketch of its linguistic structures in a pair of papers in the International Journal of American Linguistics in 1961, starting an academic publishing pattern that would eventually result in 34 significant publications.

Senator Robert Kennedy’s visit

One morning in 1965, in the midst of doing his usual linguistic analysis in the jungle, Des heard the far-off whine of the Norseman floatplane that SIL was using to transport people and supplies to members in the indigenous villages in Brazil. It landed in the river in front of his house. As the motor stopped and the door opened, the pilot, Paul Marsteller, grinned at Des and said, “I’ve got Robert Kennedy on board.” Sure enough, Senator Kennedy had asked to visit a village location, and here he was, staying overnight. Bathing in the river in the afternoon, Kennedy shouted to Des, “What is the name of this river?” “The Nhamundá,” Des replied; why did Kennedy want to know? “I want to remember the name because just now in this river, taking my bath, I have decided to run for President of the United States.”

Studying, promoting, and publishing

Feeling the need for a deeper linguistics background, Des started a Ph.D. program in 1975 at University College London, obtaining a special dispensation to do so, since he had no undergraduate university degree.

At that time, it was thought that object-initial languages were impossible. In the midst of his SIL assignment with the Hixkaryána of Brazil, however, Des had noted and written briefly about the OVS word order.

After being convinced that Hixkaryána was indeed an object-initial language, Geoffrey Pullum encouraged Des to submit a short paper to Linguistic Inquiry on this discovery, which was published in 1977 as “Word order universals and the existence of OVS languages.” Des eventually turned this paper into his dissertation, entitled Hixkaryana Syntax. While still working on his dissertation, Des wrote a more complete, typologically focused book on Hixkaryána—the first in the Lingua Descriptive Series. Amazingly, he got his first printed copies of both of these on the same day in 1979.

Des (far right) in 1985 in Porto Velho with Robert Dooley, Prof. Aryon Rodrigues, & David FortuneDes (far right) in 1985 in Porto Velho with Robert Dooley, Prof. Aryon Rodrigues, & David Fortune

Besides the revelation of object-initial languages (and there are still only a small handful of these known, most in the Amazon), Des embarked on a program of studying, promoting, and helping publish data on other languages of the Amazon. He was instrumental in raising the level of awareness of Amazonian languages from a state of close to total ignorance in the academic world. One major undertaking contributing to this was his editing, along with Pullum, of the four-volume set “Handbook of Amazonian Languages” (1986-1998). He worked hand-in-hand with linguists of the area, both SIL and non-SIL. His last major publication, as befitted the areal expert he had become, was his chapter on “Carib” in Dixon and Aikhenvald’s 1999 edited volume The Amazonian Languages (Cambridge University Press). For Derbyshire’s full bibliography, see

Des was a helper and educator from early in his career. In 1962 and 1977, he taught at the SIL school in England where he himself had been trained, and after his Ph.D. was complete, he taught from 1979–1988 at the SIL summer school at the University of North Dakota, acting also as Director from 1986–1988. Des has run numerous workshops with SIL members, helping them on syntactic write-ups. His helpful spirit emerged again as he resurrected his accountant training to act as the SIL Brazil branch treasurer in 1976, in the midst of all his other activities!

Hixkaryána people prosper

The Hixkaryána have benefited enormously from Des and Grace’s work in their area. As previously mentioned, when they first started work in the area, the Hixkaryána numbered about 100, due to a very high child mortality rate, due to measles and other Western diseases for which they had no Western medicines. There were few children and also a very low will to live as a group. It seemed quite likely that the entire group was headed for extinction, as with so many other small Amazonian languages. The Derbyshires helped with medicine, with the result that the population increased to 237 by 1977. In 2001 Des said the five Hixkaryána villages numbered 804. They have dramatically increased their self-confidence as a group, the result of literacy and Scripture translation. (Others involved in the Hixkaryána comeback are the Brazil government organization Fundacao Nacional do Indio (FUNAI), which took over the medical work in the 1970s and encouraged the Hixkaryána to set up their own Brazil nut industry, and a mission agency, Missão Novas Tribos, which trained local Hixkaryána school teachers.)


The Derbyshires had a long-term relationship with the Hixkaryána. In 1997, Grace Derbyshire died, and Des’ own health started failing in late 2005. He and Grace had worked with the Hixkaryána over a period of 45 years.

The legacy of Desmond Derbyshire is that of a classical Christian scholar as well as a friend and advocate of the marginalized. He exhibited a civil, gentle, and persistent character. At the same time, he demonstrated rigorous academics while encouraging others in the same. And he was instrumental in the very survival of the Hixkaryána, his friends. He was one very special person.


For an excellent, longer obituary written by Des’ teacher, mentor, co-author, and friend Geoffrey Pullum, see Derbyshire obituary — English version or Derbyshire obituary — Portuguese version.

For a brief account on the Derbyshires by a free-lance writer, see “Spoken Here: Travels among Threatened Languages,” by Mark Abley (Houghton Mifflin, 2003, pp. 236–239).