OBITUARY : D. B. Gregor

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The Independent Online
If any man had the gift of tongues, it was D.B. Gregor. A classicist by training and profession, he was fluent in over 20 languages and read many others. He used Esperanto - the best-known of the world's auxiliary languages, designed to solve problems of international communication -in literary translation and original writing, and was one of the last to correspond in Esperanto's predecessor, Volapk.

He devoted much of his life, however, to the study of the minority languages and dialects of northern Italy, and was almost certainly the last speaker of all six Celtic languages. He was hero-worshipped in Friuli, a region in north-eastern Italy, for his championing of its language and its culture; but his modesty and the relative obscurity of his position as a schoolmaster combined to ensure that he never received in Britain the wider academic recognition he deserved.

A gentle, unassertive man, Douglas Gregor was nevertheless a passionate advocate of minority languages and a committed scholar. He wrote about Byron's knowledge of Armenian, discussed the texts of Greek tragedies, and translated two Sherlock Holmes stories into Dolomitic Ladin and its sister languages Friulan and Romontsch. He wasted neither paper nor time: he wrote an outline of Slovenian grammar on cardboard shirt-packaging and, had there not been room for a vocabulary list next to his shaving-mirror, he would no doubt have grown a beard.

He had become an Esperantist at the age of 13, and was active in the movement as an undergraduate. He was Editor of Brita Esperantisto and Biblia Revuo, and was elected to the International Academy of Esperanto in 1963. He was a painstaking editor and a reviewer of uncommon thoroughness and fairness. He published translations in Esperanto of Sophocles' Antigone and Oedipus Rex, and of many other shorter literary works.

His most important publications came in the years after his retirement. Romagnol: Language and Literature (1972) and Friulan: Language and Literature (1975) were both the first English-language grammars of their languages and each included an anthology with translations by the author.

Mad Nap: Pulon Matt followed in 1976, a 15th-century burlesque epic in Romagnol never before published. Celtic: a comparative study (1980) was the first detailed comparison of Breton, Cornish, Irish, Manx, Scots Gaelic and Welsh, in which Gregor chronicled the decline in Celtic speakers, examined the causes and described the struggle for survival. At the time there was only one other person familiar enough with all six languages to review the book. Romontsch Language and Literature (1982), the second work in his intended Ladin trilogy, described the fourth language of Switzerland. He had previously published Stralci (1968), a reader for students of Italian, and Verses and Versions (1969), a collection of his own poems and translations.

Gregor was particularly concerned with the preservation of threatened languages. "It is time," he wrote, "that languages were regarded as part of the ecological scene and the end of one of them felt as deeply as the extinction of a species." His learning was never dry, however, but enlivened by his sense of humour, a fund of good anecdotes and a love of company.

Douglas Gregor read Greats at Exeter College, Oxford, and then taught Classics and Modern Languages at Wellington School, in Somerset. He had recently left that job to study in France when the Second World War broke out. He found his languages in demand in the Intelligence Corps, where he served in Northern Ireland, Algeria and Italy. He was among the first to enter Florence and was twice mentioned in despatches.

During the Italian campaign he produced a volume of translations of poems of the Risorgimento and compiled the first dictionary of Friulan; more importantly, he also met his future wife, Lella, in Ravenna, which set the seal on his relationship with his favourite town and its language, Romagnol.

After the war, Gregor joined Northampton Grammar School, where he remained as Senior Classics Master until his retirement in 1969. He was always delighted to hear or receive visits from former pupils, and it was characteristic of his self-effacing nature that he invariably thanked visitors for finding time in their busy schedules to see him. His inspiration and influence will be felt for many years to come.

David Lilley

Douglas Bartlett Gregor, linguist, scholar, teacher: born Swansea 6 February 1909; married 1948 Graziella Gelosi (one son, one daughter); died Northampton 26 March 1995.