Derek Bickerton, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, passed away on March 5, 2018 at the age of 91.
A seminal thinker and visionary, Derek laid out an important goal for himself, which he described in the introduction to The Roots of Language (1981), one of the most discussed books in the history of linguistics:
Language has made our species what it is, and until we really understand it—that is, understand what is necessary for it to be acquired and transmitted, and how it interacts with the rest of our cognitive apparatus—we cannot hope to understand ourselves. And unless we can understand ourselves, we will continue to watch in helpless frustration while the world we have created slips further and further from our control.
Derek pursued the goal of understanding language and humanity with unwavering intensity throughout his life, developing and extending his ideas in Language and Species (1990), Bastard Tongues (2008), Adam’s Tongue (2009), and More than Nature Needs (2014), as well as in numerous papers, presentations and speeches over four decades. The origin of language, the genesis of pidgins and creoles, and the nature of the genetic endowment for language were endlessly fascinating to him, and he wrote about them with ever-increasing eloquence and insight.
Derek relished disagreement and controversy, recognizing turmoil as the cost of moving forward. People listened to him, and he made a lasting difference—in linguistics and in the lives of his students and colleagues. I speak from experience in this regard. He was the first person to reach out to me when I arrived in Mānoa as a visiting colleague many years ago. During the period that our careers overlapped, I enjoyed numerous stimulating conversations with him on linguistic matters, and I cherish the memory of our social interactions as well.
No matter the turmoil in his academic endeavors, Derek enjoyed a rich family life. His remarkable and elegant wife Yvonne was the love of his life, and their synergy as a couple was evident to anyone who saw them together. Derek paid tribute to their long and happy marriage in a poem, the last few lines of which strike me as a fitting epilogue to his life.
Yet do we regret that we stayed
So long at the feast, gobbled up
All that was there for the taking?
Would we have gained by forsaking
The party early, our cup
Undrunk, our parts half-played?
No. There’s so much that we’d have lost:
Learning at last how love grows
When our animals finally sleep
Learning to savor the deep
Joy of mere closeness—God knows
Such things are worth any cost.
Following the announcement of Derek’s passing, a number of friends and colleagues have contacted the Department of Linguistics with their thoughts and remembrances, which we will share at this site.
To view remembrances on the memorial site, or to submit one of your own, please click here.