SOAS University of London

Remembering Dr Richard Keith Sprigg: 1922-2011

27 October 2011
Dr Richard Keith Sprigg

Dr Richard Keith Sprigg, a Reader in Phonetics at SOAS until his retirement in 1979, passed away on 8 September. He was 89.

Dr Sprigg came to SOAS in 1947 as a lecturer and remained at the School throughout his academic career.

His research into the Tibetan language took him to Tibet in 1950. By chance he arrived shortly ahead of the People's Liberation Army, making him one of the last Europeans to visit the country before it came under Chinese rule.

He retired at the age of 58 and moved to India with his wife, Ray. They settled in Kalimpong, West Bengal, where Dr Sprigg continued his studies.

The couple lived for several years in the Himalayan Hotel in Kalimpong. Their daughter, Maya, recalled that over the years Dr Sprigg 'earned the dubious privilege of becoming a tourist attraction himself'. He was listed in the Lonely Planet guide to the region and even featured in a Times travel article in 2007:

"High on a hotel terrace in Darjeeling, an alarming noise pierced the Himalayan mists. One moment it sounded like a braying donkey, the next like a crow being strangled. Was it an animal? A bird? “No, no, sir,” said the hotel receptionist. “It is Doctor Sprigg of Kalimpong, tuning up his bagpipes.”

Dr Sprigg was passionate about his academic work, and about South Asia, throughout his life.

"Much of my early life was spent following my father's SOAS career, huddled in tents, guesthouses or people's homes across India, Nepal and Sikkim, while his tape machine whirred away," his daughter recalled. "Linguistics had become his life."

One of his colleagues at SOAS was Frank Palmer, who also joined the (then) Department of Phonetics and Linguistics shortly after World War II. He has this remembrance:

"The head of that department at that time was the influential Professor J. R. Firth who did more than anyone else to promote the study of linguistics in Britain.

"All members of the department were required to undertake research into one or more languages of Africa or Asia. Keith’s choice was Tibetan. He was able to enter Tibet, briefly, in 1950, before the Chinese invasion.

"Thereafter, his research continued with Tibetans living in the north of India. He was proud of his respect for the Tibetans and his knowledge of their language and their customs: I once gave an informal talk about Tibet for which Keith provided me with information and lent me several typical Tibetan artefacts, with an urgent request that I would not make fun of the Tibetan people.

"Keith’s main interest within linguistics was the study of ‘prosodies’ (‘prosodic analysis’), i.e., the system of the sounds of languages, which had been proposed by Firth as an alternative to the phonemes of American linguists of that time. This is illustrated in two papers which Keith had read to international congresses and were printed in a collection of articles entitled ‘Prosodic Analysis’ (1970): ‘The Tonal System of Tibetan (Lhasa Dialect) and the Nominal Phrase' (1955) and ‘Vowel Harmony in Lhasa Tibetan: Prosodic Analysis Applied to Interrelated Vocalic Features of Successive Syllables' (1961).

"His interest in prosodies continued long after he retired. He came to see me only 10 years ago and asked me to comment on a paper on prosodies that he planned to read at a forthcoming conference."

Dr Sprigg returned to the UK in 2000, after his wife's death. He remarried and settled in Crowborough, East Sussex.

Despite failing eyesight, he completed a  Balti-English dictionary in 2002 (Balti is spoken in northern Pakistan). His daughter reports that he continued to receive 'linguistic visitors' until shortly before he died.

Dr Sprigg is survived by his wife, Elizabeth, his daughter, Maya Smith, his son, David, and his granddaughter, Emily. A memorial service will be held at noon on Wednesday 26th October 2011at St Mary's Church, Queens Road, Crowborough, East Sussex TN6 2LB.