Background - KeithSprigg

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Keith Sprigg 1922 - 2011
An extraordinary man with four great loves

Christened Richard Keith Sprigg and officially born on 31st March 1922, Keith used to joke that he had actually been born in the early hours of 1st April, which the British celebrate as April Fools Day. Not wishing her son to be the butt of cruel jokes about his birthday, his mother registered the birth a few hours earlier than it actually was.

Disliking the name Richard, and especially its shortened form of 'Dick' he was universally known as Keith.

Born in Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire, Keith was educated at Oakham School. In 1940 he studied Classics at St John’s College Cambridge. His studies were interrupted when he joined the RAF in 1943, undertaking a short course in Japanese before joining a convoy for India. Between 1943 and his demobilisation in 1947 he served in India, Ceylon, Singapore and Japan, interpreting Japanese radio transmissions and Japanese generally.

He shared some of his experiences only a couple of years before his death, notably the time he spent in Hiroshima shortly after the bomb.

Upon his return to the UK in 1947 as a Flight Lieutenant he was awarded a War degree.

His first love – Linguistics

In 1947 he joined SOAS (The School of Oriental and African Studies, a part of London University) as a Lecturer specializing in Tibeto-Burman languages. His passion for linguistics lasted his whole life.

In 1948 he lodged with the Brown family in Richmond, and first met Elizabeth Brown, then a schoolgirl, who was to become his wife in 2000.

In 1949 he travelled to Kalimpong, in West Bengal, India, preparing for a trip into Tibet, meeting Ray Williams, who he was later to marry.

During the 1960s and 1970s he pursued the linguistic career that dominated his life. In addition to teaching at SOAS he lectured in Europe and the United States and continued his research with extended visits to India, Pakistan, Sikkim and Nepal, publishing dozens of papers.

Wife Ray suffered a serious stroke in 1980 and they decided that he should retire from his position as Reader of Phonetics at SOAS and return to her birthplace of Kalimpong.

For 20 years he continued to study and publish, focusing a lot of his attention on the Limbu and Lepcha languages and becoming, to his immense pride, an honourary Lepcha.

His second love - Ray Williams

In 1950 his research into the Tibetan language took him to Tibet. He arrived - and departed - 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.

In 1952 He married Ray Williams in Melton Mowbray and they lived in Chessington before settling in Little Bookham, Surrey. Son David was born in 1957 and daughter Maya in 1958

His third love - bagpipes

Wherever he went his beloved, though temperamental, bagpipes went with him, and he played them almost until his death.

Having settled in Kalimpong in 1980 the combination of his old-fashioned Englishness and his love of the bagpipes led to his becoming a tourist attraction. He was listed in Lonely Planet's Guide to India, and the subject of a Sunday Times travel article written by Stephen McClarence:

"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."

In 1999 Ray died and Keith moved back to the UK.

His fourth love - Elizabeth Ransom (nee Brown)

In 2000 Keith married Elizabeth, who had been a close friend of the family ever since he knew her as Elizabeth Brown when lodging with her mother in 1948.

They settled in Crowborough and with Elizabeth’s unfailing help and support, he published his English/Balti dictionary in 2002. They travelled widely, including trips to Europe and South America, until his failing health made travel impossible.

Keith died in September 2011 after several years of poor health.


At his Memorial Service Tributes were received from SOAS, from his surviving colleagues, from the British Gurkha Ex-Servicemen’s Organization, and from the Limbu Society which called him ‘a pioneer researcher for the Limbu language... a towering figure in the field of Limbu linguistics'.

Keith was truly a gentleman and a scholar – an extraordinary man, who lived an extraordinary life.

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