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Darrell Trevor Tryon (1942–2013)

by Andrew Pawley

Darrell Tryon, by Stuart Hay, 1986 [detail]

Darrell Tryon, by Stuart Hay, 1986 [detail]

ANU Archives, ANUA 226-260

Darrell Tryon, Emeritus Professor at The Australian National University, died in Canberra, aged 70. His contributions to Pacific linguistics and language studies were diverse and prolific. Although best known for his pioneering work on languages of Vanuatu, the Solomons and the Loyalty Islands, he did research on hundreds of languages in half a dozen areas of the Pacific islands and Australia and was a highly productive author, who wrote or co-authored 22 books, edited or co-edited another 18, and wrote over 100 articles and a stack of book reviews, as well as supervising some 30 doctoral theses.

There are many kinds of linguists. There are, for instance, theoreticians who sit in their armchairs and look for universal properties of language structure and language change. There are comparative historical linguists, who sit in their armchairs and try to reconstruct the historical development of languages. Then there are those who gather primary data by fieldwork or from other sources. Among the gatherers of primary data are those who undertake field surveys of some or all the languages of a region and those who do in-depth analysis and description of the grammars and lexicons of particular languages. And there are sociolinguists, who pay particular attention to the social contexts and functions of linguistic usages. Except for the first category, Darrell was all of these, in some measure: he did pioneering field surveys, in-depth descriptions, and both comparative historical and sociolinguistic work.

A fluent speaker of French, he also maintained an abiding interest in French South Pacific affairs. In 2004 he was made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour by the French Government, in recognition of his contributions to French language and culture, especially in the Pacific, and for his work in fostering bilateral relations between Australia and France.

Darrell was born and grew up in Christchurch. He completed a bachelor’s degree at the University of Canterbury in 1963, majoring in French and Classics, followed by an MA with first-class honours in French in 1964. In his student days he was a useful cricketer and rugby player and later in life he continued to play golf (handicap two) and tennis.

Darrell’s first love at university was the French language, with a particular interest in 18th-century French literature. One might have expected him to go on to a career as a scholar of French language and literature, but fate led him in another direction. During his undergraduate days he had spent time in New Caledonia, teaching English at the Polytechnic in Noumea. There he became fascinated by the diversity of indigenous languages spoken in New Caledonia and the Loyalty Islands (about 27 languages in all) and decided to pursue a career in linguistics. Nevertheless, his mastery of the French language was to shape his career as a linguist and international bridge-builder. Much of his early research involved fieldwork on the languages of France’s territories in the Pacific, where fluency in French was a great advantage.

Darrell’s career as a linguist can be roughly divided into three phases. In the first phase, between the mid-1960s and about 1980, he did a great deal of fieldwork, documenting many previously undescribed or little-described languages. When he entered the field, Melanesian linguistics was still in the age of discovery. More than 1,000 languages are spoken in Melanesia, including the island of New Guinea, and about 300 in Island Melanesia (i.e. excluding New Guinea). In the 1960s, many of these languages remained almost completely unknown. There was a crying need for fundamental research but only a handful of trained linguists worked in this vast domain.

In 1965, Darrell obtained a scholarship to do a PhD in linguistics in the Research School of Pacific Studies at The Australian National University, under Stephen Wurm, with the plan of doing descriptions of three languages of the Loyalty Islands: Dehu, Iai and Nengone (the first two are nowadays spelt Drehu and Iaai). During that year and the next he did extended fieldwork in the Loyalties.

The year 1967 brought several significant advances. First, he gained a wife and lifelong companion when he married Gabrielle (Gaye) Dunn. Second, he completed his PhD thesis. Third, he published a Dehu–English dictionary, an English–Dehu dictionary and a short grammar of Nengone (followed in 1968 by grammars of Dehu and Iai). Fourth, he was appointed as a Research Fellow in Wurm’s Linguistics Department. Staff recruited by Wurm famously had to have two essential requirements: be a specialist in a certain region or regions of the Pacific and be an indefatigable fieldworker. Darrell met these desiderata. He became the department’s chief specialist in Island Melanesian languages, working alongside Wurm (Papuan and Australian languages), Don Laycock (Papuan languages of the Sepik and Bougainville), Bert Voorhoeve (Papuan languages of Indonesia, chiefly in the western half of New Guinea) and Tom Dutton (Austronesian and Papuan languages of southeast New Guinea). He was to remain at the ANU for the rest of his career, apart from an 18-month period at James Cook University in 1972–73.

But as it happens, Darrell’s first major project as a Research Fellow was not in Melanesia but in northern Australia. He did extensive field research on languages of the Daly River area in Arnhem Land. From this work came two books, a short grammar of Maranunku (1971) and a 300-page overview, The Daly Family Languages (1974). The eminent Australianist Mary Laughren wrote [1] that in addition to his work on the Daly languages:

[Darrell] also contributed to the establishment of the bilingual education programs in the [Northern Territory] as a member of the Government’s advisory committee on bilingual education set up to oversee the introduction of this program in the 1970s and he was also very much involved in the setting up of the School of Australian languages in Darwin, and post cyclone 1974, in Batchelor. In fact it was very much thanks to Darrell that I was appointed as research officer (linguist) to support the incipient Warlpiri language program at Yuendumu in 1975, as I was recruited with no specific field location in mind at the same time as the committee was due to meet in Darwin. Darrell had visited Yuendumu on his way to this meeting and reported that the people had forcefully told him that they needed a linguist.

His research in this area later led to him appearing as an expert witness for land claims during the Mabo era.

At some time during these early years, he spent time in Tahiti and the Marquesas, became proficient in Tahitian and found time to write a substantial primer of that language, Conversational Tahitian, published in 1970, later followed by an edition in French.

During 1969–70, Darrell embarked on an ambitious project in the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu). This was a survey and comparative study of the languages of the archipelago, in which he gathered 300-item wordlists for 170 languages and dialects and used these as the basis for a genealogical classification. In the course of this project, Darrell visited many of the villages of Vanuatu to obtain wordlists, as well as drawing on materials gathered by others. Some results were presented at the First International Conference on Austronesian Linguistics in Honolulu in 1974. The full findings were laid out in a 500-page volume published in 1976, New Hebrides Languages: An Internal Classification, which contained all the wordlists and offered the first comprehensive family tree classification of the Vanuatu languages. In later papers, he focused on extensive social networks and dialect chaining as a problem for classifying Vanuatu languages.

In the mid-1970s, Darrell began a similar project in the Solomon Islands. With the help of a geologist and long-time resident of the Solomons, Brian Hackman, he recorded wordlists for some 90 communalects, comprising over 60 distinct languages and 30 or so dialects of these. Again, this work involved travel to all parts of the Solomons, including the remote islands of Vanikoro and Utupua. Findings were reported in another 500-page tome published in 1983: Solomon Islands Languages: An Internal Classification. The two survey volumes remain standard reference works. Seldom a week goes by when I don’t look up something in one or the other.

In the 1970s, Darrell also wrote a pedagogical manual on Bislama, the lingua franca of Vanuatu. It remains a steady seller to this day.

In the 1980s, while continuing to write about Vanuatu and Solomons languages, Darrell entered a new phase of research and publishing. He had gained a taste for organising big team projects and used his organisational and entrepreneurial talents to direct or play a key role in several such enterprises, most of which took a decade or more to complete. From these came a succession of large volumes, which he edited or co-edited and which appeared in the 1990s. One was a Comparative Austronesian Dictionary (1995), a five-volume monster that runs to over 3,000 pages. It includes 1,300-item wordlists for each of 80 selected languages, plus essays by specialists on these languages and on comparative topics, with introductory essays by Darrell. Another was the three-volume, 1,600-page Atlas of Languages of Intercultural Communication in the Pacific, Asia and the Americas (edited with Stephen Wurm and Peter Mülhausler), published in 1997. Then there were two volumes that came out of an interdisciplinary collaborative project on Austronesian-speaking peoples based in the Research School of Pacific Studies. Language Contact and Change in the Austronesian World (co-edited with T.E. Dutton) appeared in 1994. The Austronesians (co-edited with J. Fox and P. Bellwood) appeared in 1995; this contained chapters by archaeologists, cultural anthropologists and geneticists as well as linguists.

Arts of Vanuatu (1996, co-edited with three other scholars) was a book of a different kind, which reflected Darrell’s interests in art and material culture, as was Identités en mutation dans le Pacifique (1998, with Paul de Dekker). Boundary Rider: Essays in Honour of Geoffrey O’Grady (1997, co-edited with Michael Walsh) was a tribute to a pioneering Australianist. In another collaborative project, undertaken with Jean-Michel Charpentier, Darrell combined his interest in Pacific history with his interest in Bislama and other Pacific pidgins to research the social history and linguistic origins of these pidgins. Their book on this, called Pacific Pidgins and Creoles, many years in the making, finally appeared in 2004.

Another long-term enterprise, of a very different sort, was the Vanuatu Fieldworker Programme, based in the Vanuatu Cultural Centre in Port Vila. Every year the centre brought together men, and latterly women, from communities from all over Vanuatu to record traditions in various domains of culture. Darrell coordinated these workshops for some 30 years, with proceedings conducted in Bislama. He grew very fond of some of the regular participants and told me stories about them. The materials collected in this way were archived at the Cultural Centre in Port Vila.

In the 15 or so years before his retirement in 2007, Darrell was heavily involved in university administration at ANU. For most of this time he was Convener of the School of Society and Environment and, for part of the time, Deputy Director of the Research School of Pacific Studies (later Pacific and Asian Studies). He became a canny and effective operator in university politics.

Darrell’s involvement in the wider work of the school strengthened his long-held interests in governance and social issues in the countries of the South Pacific (many of his more recent publications were in this area). He was much involved in fostering collaboration between Australian and French academic and cultural institutions. He was Constitutional Adviser to the Vanuatu Government and a member of the Councils of the University of New Caledonia and the French University of the Pacific in Tahiti. On one occasion he addressed the French National Assembly in Paris on scientific and cultural cooperation between Australia and France.

Now to a paradox. For anyone to sustain high productivity in research and writing year after year, decade after decade, it is not enough just to be intellectually curious. You have to be passionate to the point of being obsessive, and, at times, single-minded to the point of being selfish. The paradox is that Darrell did not strike his colleagues as being like that. On the contrary, he was laid back, calm, friendly, with an impish sense of humour (as Brij Lal wrote in a tribute, ‘Darrell was a serious scholar but not a solemn one’), a man who liked to socialise, always had time for a chat and kept up a wide network of contacts, and who was also politically savvy— qualities that would have made him an excellent diplomat, a suitable ambassador to France or Indonesia but not necessarily a prolific scholar. Yet Darrell was such a scholar. So I conclude that behind the laid-back exterior there was an inner Darrell who had these other qualities but managed them in an unobtrusive way.

I first met Darrell some 40 years ago, but got to know him much better after I came to the ANU in 1990 to succeed Stephen Wurm as head of the Linguistics Department in RSPAS. Here, I was fortunate to have three experienced senior academics in the department to advise me: Darrell, Tom Dutton and Malcolm Ross. Ironically, although I was Darrell’s Head of Department for 17 years, he was also my boss for much of that time, in his capacity as Convener of the Division of Society and Environment in RSPAS and as Deputy Director of the school. I am grateful to him for wise counsel on matters ranging from handling temperamental support staff to obtaining school funds to run conferences. Our conversations often moved from academic matters to cricket, a game we both loved.

Darrell had been battling melanoma for some months, but the suddenness of his passing came as a shock to his wife Gabrielle, their two children, Miles and Mary-Claire, and their four grandchildren and to his colleagues at The Australian National University and elsewhere. We will miss his friendship, enthusiasm, wisdom and sense of humour.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Andrew Pawley, 'Tryon, Darrell Trevor (1942–2013)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 22 May 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Darrell Tryon, by Stuart Hay, 1986 [detail]

Darrell Tryon, by Stuart Hay, 1986 [detail]

ANU Archives, ANUA 226-260

Life Summary [details]


20 July, 1942
Christchurch, New Zealand


15 May, 2013 (aged 70)
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

Cause of Death

cancer (skin)

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.