German Lutheran Missionaries and the Linguistic Landscape of Central Australia 1890-1910

David Moore
University of Western Australia

My research aims to investigate documentation and research in the languages of Central Australia, providing a valid interpretation of the materials of the earliest work on the Aranda (Arrernte, Arrarnta) language of Central Australia. I examine the linguistic influences and language ideologies underpinning the analysis and description of Central Australian languages by German Lutheran Missionaries from 1890 to 1910. The Arandic languages in Central Australia are among the most researched languages in Australian linguistic history. German Lutheran missionaries conducted fieldwork in Australian languages in the late nineteenth century at Lake Killalpaninna in South Australia (Harms 2003; Kneebone 2005) and Hermannsburg in the Northern Territory (Kenny 2008; J. Strehlow 2011). The period 1890-1910 saw the first comprehensive grammars and wordlists of Central Australian Aboriginal languages by missionaries from Hermannsburg (Kempe, 1891) and Neuendettelsau (Strehlow 1909).


The background to the missionary linguistics of Central Australia is events which occurred in Germany in the early sixteenth century. The Lutheran Reformation set the stage for philology with Martin Luther establishing the use of vernaculars in church services rather than Latin. Protestants engaged with the Hebrew and Greek, Classical source languages of the Old and New Testaments. The Bible was translated in Protestant countries with the German New Testament published in 1522 and the complete German Bible in 1534. The resulting social context involved the need to read the Bible in vernacular languages with High German adopted as the literary standard. Kral (2000) has explored Lutheran practices of literacy at Hermannsburg and the central role of the text. The principles of translation and exegesis developed for the translation and understanding of Biblical texts. The first published translations of the Bible were made by Lutherans, Dieri (1897) and Aranda (1956).


In the view of Williamson (2004:66), the Lutheran Reformation had established the principle of freedom in scholarship and theology. In Protestant Germany, philology as the study of written texts became established in Philological Seminars at the universities of Halle and Göttingen. Leventhal (1986:244) maintains that the latter had become one of the premier literary and academic centres of Europe by 1785. In the years following the development of the seminar as a recognized European academic center, similar philological seminars were established in the German-speaking territories, at Helmstedt (1779); Halle, (1787) and Berlin (1809).

Greek emerged as a key language of the Philological Seminar alongside Latin. The Philhellenist movement sought a return to the civilization of Classical Greece. The interest in Greek occurred for many reasons. During the reaction to the Enlightenment known as the Romantic era there was a search for models of society which were radically different and as a reaction to French education and the Latin Schools which had dominated German education in the eighteenth century. As Williamson (2004:136) explains, “Since the ascent of Heyne at Göttingen and Wolf at Halle, philology had emerged as the model science for the research university: critical, inquisitive and grounded in an expert command of the Greek language”. Marchand (2003:20) elaborates, “Access to the Greek mind was to proceed by strict attention to the linguistic, grammatical and orthographic detail”. Wilhelm von Humboldt regarded Greek as the language of perfection. The learning of Greek was important to Bildung as formation or cultivation. Classical humanism was established in German universities and taught at all levels of education. As Greek was also the language of the New Testament, missionaries were grounded in both Classical and New Testament Greek.

Erlangen and Neuendettelsau

From its foundation in 1742 Erlangen was a Protestant University. In 1777 Gottlieb Christoph Harles, a student of Heyne’s at Göttingen, founded a philological seminar at the University of Erlangen. I will now mention some of the most significant figures in philology at Erlangen.

Rudolf von Raumer (1815-1876) was a philologist at the University of Erlangen from 1840 and Professor until his death in 1876, his particular interest was in the Germanic languages, following on the work of Grimm. Lehmann (1967:68) considers him “to be one of the most important contributors to the methodology of historical linguistics”. The problems which arose in historical linguistics led to an increasing need for competence in phonetics, “In keeping with this need to move away from the shuffling of letters, von Raumer set out to arrive at an accurate statement of articulatory phonetics”. Jankowsky (1972:89) credits him as being “the first to utilize the implications of phonetic studies for letter-philology”. He concentrated upon the individual speaker as the agent of sound changes. Raumer studied contemporary speech for understanding historical sound relationships, researching the spoken dialects of German, Low German, Bavarian and Swabian. Carl Friedrich Naegelsbach (1806-1859) was a Classical philologist who studied at Berlin. He first taught at the Gymnasium and was a Professor of Classics at Erlangen from 1842-1859. He wrote Lateinsiche Stilistik and Homerische Theologie. Naegelsbach taught Johannes Deinzer at Erlangen. Johann Konrad Wilhelm Löhe (1808-1872) went to the University of Erlangen in 1826 and graduated in 1830. Löhe founded the Neuendettelsau Mission Institute after moving to the village of Neuendettelsau in 1837. Friedrich Bauer (1812-1874) wrote a German Grammar which, according to John Strehlow (2011:206), had run to twenty seven editions by 1912. His work contributed significantly to the unification of the German language and was a precursor to the Duden, covering word formation, word teaching, syntax and spelling. Bauer taught at Neuendettelsau Seminary. John Strehlow (2011) has described Bauer’s educational program. Bauer wanted the students at Neuendettelsau to be given “a thoroughgoing academic education, modelled essentially on the training offered by the Grammar School and then university”. In addition to German, the curriculum comprised Latin and Greek, some rudimentary study of Hebrew, a close study of the Bible, Church history and theological studies. Johannes Deinzer (1842-1897) studied at the University of Erlangen (J Strehlow 2011:214) where he ‘came under the influence of von Hofmann, Thomasius, von Raumer and Naegelsbach. He took up a post as teacher at Neuendettelsau in 1864. Deinzer was principal of Neuendettelsau Seminary from 1874 to 1897 (J Strehlow 2011:213) when he taught the Neuendettelsau missionaries including Carl Strehlow, Friedrich Leidig, JP Loehe, Christian Keysser, JJ Stolz, Wilhelm Poland, Adolf Ortenburger and Johannes Flierl I.

Neogrammarians and the older philology

The earlier philology had worked at the level of the word and the dialect geographers were also interested in collecting words and developing isoglosses. In the late nineteenth century the field came to be dominated by comparative and historical linguistics which concentrated rather more on the question of the common origin of the Indo-European languages and on the positivistic science of finding sound laws. Jankowsky (1968) lists the main critics of the Neogrammarians as classical philologists and dialect geographers who retained an interest in meaning over form. Dialect geographers were interested in fieldwork. Georg Curtius, a Classical Philologist remained a transitional figure who attempted to reconcile Classical and Comparative philology (Curtius 1845). The narrow aims of the Neogrammarians must have seemed remote from the interests of linguistic fieldworkers of the nineteenth century as they struggled to find ways to describe the languages of Australia.

Linguistics in Central Australia 1890-1910

The use of Greek is evident in the work of early missionaries. Greek was regarded as an ideal and complex language, an original language. In a positive evaluation of Aboriginal languages Carl Strehlow compared Aranda with Classical Greek, writing to the South Australian Register in 1921, “The well-constructed language of the Aranda reminds one of the old Greek language; in fact, it has more moods than the last mentioned”. Strehlow adopted the names of Greek grammatical categories, such as the Optative mood and Dual number. He claimed that Aranda had as many moods as Greek. Also important was translation theory and the need for a translation to be an authentic text. In their correspondence with the Mission Board in Adelaide, missionaries referred to Max Müller (1823-1900), a popularizer of linguistics who retained a broad interests throughout his long tenure at Oxford University in the second half of the nineteenth century. Müller’s Lectures on the Science of Language was widely available and cited. Educated at an early age in Greek ‘his range of interests was astonishingly broad: Sanskrit language and literature, Indian philosophy and astrology, comparative mythology and religious science, language typology and non-Indo-European languages’ (Jankowsky 1972: 179).


The Neuendettelsau missionaries were steeped in the language ideologies of nineteenth century Germany. They were influenced by philology, firstly by the Classical philology that was taught at Erlangen and then by the new interest in Germanic and Comparative philology. Awareness of languages was developed at Neuendettelsau through exposure to the Classical and Germanic languages and to the emerging studies and interest in Comparative philology and its offshoots: phonetics and dialectology. An awareness of phonetics, grammar, semantics and the principles of translation was essential for fieldwork in the Aranda language. Their pioneering work in phonetics, grammar and Classical and Germanic philology was transferred to the Neuendettelau missionaries through their teachers, Deinzer and Bauer and gave their students rich opportunities to learn from contemporary linguistic theories and methods.


Curtius, Georg (1845). Die Sprachvergleichung in ihrem Verhältniss zur classischen Philologie, W. Besser.

Harms, Hartwig F. (2003). Träume und Tränen: Hermannsburger Missionare und die Wirkungen ihrer Arbeit in Australien und Neuseeland Ludwig-Harms-Haus.

Jankowsky, K. R. (1968). The Neogrammarians: A re-evaluation of their place in the development of linguistic science, School of Languages and Linguistics, Georgetown University.

Kempe, A. H. (1891). “A Grammar and Vocabulary of the language of the natives of the McDonnell ranges.” Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia XIV 1-54.

Kenny, A. (2008). From Missionary to Frontier Scholar: An Introduction to Carl Strehlow’s Masterpeice, Die-Aranda-und Loritja-Stamme in Zentral-Australien (1901-1909). Department of Anthropology, Sydney University PhD thesis

Kneebone, Heidi Marie. (2005). The language of the chosen view: the first phase of graphization of Dieri by Hermannsburg missionaries, Lake Killalpaninna, 1867-80. Linguistics: School of Humanities, Adelaide University PhD thesis.

Kral, Inge. (2000). “The socio-historical development of literacy in Arrernte: A case study of writing in an Aboriginal language and the implications for current vernacular literacy practices.” Unpublished Masters thesis (Applied Linguistics). University of Melbourne, Melbourne.

Leventhal, R. S. (1986). “The emergence of philological discourse in the German states, 1770-1810.” Isis: 243-260.
Marchand, S. ( 2003 ). Down from Olympus: Archaeology and Philhellenism in German 1750-1970. Princeton, N.J, Princeton University Press.

Müller, F. M. (1866). Lectures on the science of language: Delivered at the Royal Institution of Great Britain in April, May, & June 1861, Longmans, Green.

Strehlow, Carl (1909). Vocabulary of the Aranda and Loritja Native Languages of Central Australia with English equivalents. Unpublished manuscript.

Strehlow, John. (2011). The Tale of Frieda Keysser, Frieda Keysser and Carl Strehlow: An Historical Biography, Volume I: 1875–1910. London, Wild Cat Press.

Williamson, G. S. (2004). The longing for myth in Germany: religion and aesthetic culture from romanticism to Nietzsche. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

How to cite this post

Moore, David. German Lutheran Missionaries and the Linguistic Landscape of Central Australia 1890-1910. History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences.

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Posted in 19th century, Australia, Field linguistics, Grammars, History, Linguistics
One comment on “German Lutheran Missionaries and the Linguistic Landscape of Central Australia 1890-1910
  1. Susan Moore says:

    Very interesting! Helped my understanding of the linguistic landscape in the early years of settlement in Central Australia

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