Missionary linguistics and the German contribution to Central Australian language research and fieldwork 1890-1910

David Moore
University of Western Australia


This article explores the outstanding contribution of German Lutheran missionaries to linguistics, language documentation and translation in Aboriginal languages in Central Australia from the last decade of the nineteenth century to the years leading up to the First World War. The Hermannsburg missionaries compiled texts, grammars, dictionaries and translations of Aboriginal languages. The Hermannsburg missionaries laid the groundwork for this linguistic work, establishing the Hermannsburg mission in 1877. Hermann Kempe pioneered language description of the Aranda (Arrernte, Arrarnta) language. The Neuendettelsau missionaries however were more highly trained in languages and undertook more extensive linguistic work. Missionary Carl Strehlow (1871-1922) worked at the Hermannsburg mission from 1894 until his death in 1922.

Humanism and the Reformation

The German use of the original sources and respect for the vernacular goes back to the Lutheran Reformation and, ultimately, to the sixteenth century Humanists. The foundation that knowledge of ancient source languages was central to understanding of the ancient world became the basis for Humanists who developed the tools for linguistic scholarship in the sixteenth century. Building on their work, Martin Luther translated the German New Testament in 1522 and the Old Testament and complete German Bible by 1534 (Wendt 2001:8), thus transforming the German language. Vernacular Bible translations were then made in other Protestant territories of Europe. The most influential Reformer in education was Luther’s younger colleague and successor Phillip Melanchthon (1497-1560), who developed a Christian Humanist education which focused upon the learning of the ancient languages Hebrew, Greek and Latin. The Lutheran Reformers developed an education system in which the study of languages played an important part. The Melanchthon Gymnasium was established in NĂŒrnberg in 1526. Lutheran churches and schools were key institutions which the Lutheran missionaries established in Central Australia at Lake Killalpannina (1866) and Hermannsburg (1877).

The following sections show the connections between the Lutheran tradition and linguistics, the German philosophy of language and linguistics and fieldwork in the following two centuries. The first section looks at the German philosophy of language and its continuation through “general linguistics” of the nineteenth century. The second section briefly traces the development of philology in Germany at the Neuendettelsau mission institution in the late nineteenth century. The third section outlines text-based philology as fieldwork in the early twentieth century.

Philosophy of language and language ideologies

By the late eighteenth century a philosophy of language emerged which was best exemplified by Johann Georg Hamann (1730-88) and Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803). Herder was a Lutheran pastor who trained in theology and who continued to further, and also to challenge, Luther’s insights into translation and became a founder of cultural anthropology. Both Hamann and Herder learned languages and spent a significant amount of their time working as translators. Forster (2010:208) outlines two of the key principles of the Hamann-Herder philosophy of language which developed in reaction to Enlightenment philosophies of language. Firstly that “all thought is essentially dependent upon and bounded by language”, meaning that thought without language is not possible. Secondly that “meanings consist of real word-usages” rather than mental images or ideas. These two key language ideologies led to the need to learn languages and engage in language research as Herder outlined in his Ideas for the Philosophy of the History of Humanity (Herder 1803). A third language ideology stressed linguistic diversity. Hamann, Herder and many of their contemporaries experienced the difficulty of translation between languages and incommensurability due to conceptual differences between people in different times and places. The insight into linguistic diversity led to the need to work hard at translation and to strive for accuracy and fidelity to source texts. The language philosophy of the late eighteenth century led to further developments in the study of language and the transmission of these language ideologies through linguistic anthropology and missionary linguistics in the nineteenth century.

Missionary linguistics and translation

The greatest achievements in Germany in the nineteenth century were in the field of philology consisting of textual scholarship, hermeneutics and translation. Humanist philology developed to a high degree through Language Seminars (Moore 2014). Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) wrote an influential paper on translation (Schleiermacher 1813). As a further development of Herder’s call to investigate linguistic diversity, Friedrich Schlegel (1772-1829) and Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835) developed linguistics in the nineteenth century through the further exploration of a larger number of languages than was possible for the eighteenth century philosophers. In terms of Schleicher’s (1850) division of philology and linguistics, the missionaries were clearly more aligned with the text-based philology of general linguistics, rather than the Comparative Philology which developed in the late nineteenth century. At Neuendettelsau the missionary candidates were thoroughly trained in Humanist philology which was studied with theology as it had been in the sixteenth century Reformation. The Neuendettelsau curriculum was established by Friedrich Bauer (1813-1874) who had been trained at the Melanchthon Gymnasium in NĂŒrnberg. He later studied at Erlangen (1830-32 and 1833-5) and at Halle (1832-33), institutions which continued Humanist education in the nineteenth century. At Halle Bauer studied with Wilhelm Gesenius (1786–1842), the author of the Hebrew-German lexicon (Rossler 2013:18). Bauer wrote an innovative German pedagogical grammar (Bauer 1850) which he continued to revise in step with current linguistic theories (Fuchshuber-Weiß 2013). Mission candidates were trained in biblical and classical languages and German, translation, interpretation and rhetoric.

Missionaries codified the language by the collection of texts and the making of wordlists and grammars to understand texts, languages and their speakers. The willingness and seriousness of missionaries in learning languages enabled them to make discoveries about the structures of Aboriginal languages. Initially describing Aboriginal languages in terms of the familiar European languages, they became increasingly aware of the complexity of Aboriginal languages. They sought to collaborate with professional scholars. Kempe (1891:25) commented, “[T]here are many questions related herein which would require a philologist to classify or properly arrange, and any hints in this direction would be thankfully received by the writer.” A language ideology that all languages are complex arose in opposition to the notion of “primitive languages” which was shared, along with the other three language ideologies already mentioned, with Humboldtians. Leonhardi corresponded with linguists from the “general linguistics” Humboldtian tradition who were interested in non-Indo-European languages and fieldwork, for example, he corresponded with Franz N. Finck about Aranda grammar.

Linguistic Fieldwork and Die Aranda

Initial missionary fieldwork revolved around the need to find theological key terms for Bible translation. The earlier phase of language documentation at Hermannsburg saw the first grammar and wordlist (Kempe 1891) of the Aranda language. Carl Strehlow learned Aranda and collected words and key terms in the first phase of fieldwork from 1894-1904. Later in response to queries from Moritz von Leonhardi, his collaborator in Germany, he extended the earlier research and also began to investigate the Loritja language. Strehlow began writing Die Aranda-und Loritja-StÀmme in Zentral-Australien (The Aranda and Loritja Tribes of Central Australia), corresponding with Leonhardi from 1905 to 1910. In a letter to Strehlow of the 9th September 1905 Leonhardi described this collection as Sprache, Sagen und GebrÀuche (language, myths and customs). He further outlined the project:

Legends in Aranda language written down with literal interlinear translations would be very valuable, for which lexicon and grammar would then provide the key. A lexicon which besides the meaning of the word also provides a short explanation of the individual objects, characters in legends etc. is very popular and valuable to scholarship.

Most important for Leonhardi was the original language as he wrote in a letter of the 2nd June 1906 Strehlow (VL 1906-2-1) (2/6/06). The Urtext (original text) was seen as the most authentic expression of Aranda and Luritja worldviews. Strehlow recorded the Urtext in interlinear texts in which each word of the original language was translated into German. It was most important for the reader who didn’t know the language to have an accurate translation. Leonhardi also indicated that a free translation would be necessary for the reader to “penetrate into the spirit of the language and of the beliefs”. Strehlow’s Die Aranda involved describing the Aranda and Luritja traditions with the long-established methods of Humanist Philology, that is, the compilation of texts, a dictionary (Strehlow 1909) and grammar (Strehlow 1910). In their correspondence there is little evidence that Strehlow and Leonhardi saw their work as “ethnography”. The first instalments of Die Aranda concern language and myths. This view contrasts with that of Kenny (2013:28) who describes Die Aranda as Carl Strehlow’s “ethnographic oeuvre” as a “transitional” anthropology. But Strehlow’s Die Aranda reflects his training at Neuendettelsau in an established tradition of philology and translation and its application to unwritten languages. As Kenny (2013:83) admits, “Ethnographic approaches or methodology do not appear to have been part of the curriculum; anthropological study came mainly through language study.”

Leonhardi (23-12-1908) wrote to Strehlow, “As the culmination of the total work you must finally write a language study of Aranda and Loritja.” This statement surely suggests that the linguistic work was the Krönung, the high point or peak or culmination (Kenny 2013:98) of Die Aranda and its major focal point. Strehlow’s Die Aranda is primarily a collection of texts with a dictionary and grammar and an explanation of aspects of culture in answer to questions of interest to Ethnology.

Reasons why their work was sidelined

Protestant Germans and British cooperated throughout the nineteenth century. This was no more evident than in missionary ventures, where Britons and Germans worked together for the spread of the Christian message through the British and Foreign Bible Society and other evangelical organisations. This unity and common purpose broke down in the twentieth century in the First World War. Their work was overshadowed by later developments in linguistics and anthropology. Probably most significant was the history of anthropology throughout the twentieth century. Veit (1991:119) mentions “the paradigmatic change in Australian anthropology” as the major cause for the abandonment of Humanist philology. A shift to the methods of the natural sciences was already happening in the early part of the twentieth century and well under way in the mid-twentieth. The structural-functionalist anthropology of Radcliffe-Brown had little concern with language learning and linguistics. Unfortunately Australian linguistics was often founded upon structuralist-functionalist anthropological foundations with a lack of interest in language that paralleled the situation in Britain.

Concluding remarks

The arrival of German Lutheran missionaries in remote and largely monolingual Australia was fortuitous for the recording of Aboriginal languages. The language ideologies of language diversity and language complexity and their linguistic training and language acquisition led the missionaries to contribute to linguistic knowledge through their thorough documentation of Central Australian languages. Through their training and long-term engagement with Aboriginal languages the missionaries were able to provide accurate first-hand information about them. They opposed the social evolutionary view and notions about “primitive languages” at a time when this view was still reflected in the works of Anglophone anthropologists. Carl Strehlow took a firm stand against “primitive languages”, recognising that Aranda was a fully adequate means of communication. The Hermannsburg mission became the base for ongoing linguistic work and the influence of a certain strand of German philology and linguistics in Australia, one which valued languages and had the training and humanistic appreciation of them.


Leonhardi to Strehlow 9-9-05 (Strehlow Research Centre, VL 1905-1-1)

Published references

Bauer, Friedrich. 1850. GrundzĂŒge der neuhochdeutschen Grammatik fĂŒr höhere Bildungsanstalten und zur Selbstbelehrung fĂŒr Gebildete. Nördlingen: CH Beck’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung.

Crick, Malcolm. 1976. Explorations in language and meaning: towards a semantic anthropology. London: Malaby Press.

Forster, Michael N. 2010. After Herder: Philosophy of language in the German tradition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Finnegan, R. 1969. Attitudes to the Study of Oral Literature in British Social Anthropology. Man 4 (N.S): 59-69.

Fuchshuber-Weiß, Elisabeth. 2013. Vor der Übersicht zur Einsicht. In Friedrich Bauer (1812-1874) Pionier in der Weltmission, Wegbereiter des Duden, edited by Claudia Jahnel and Hermann VorlĂ€nder, 77-134. Neuendettelsau: Erlanger Verlag fĂŒr Mission und Ökumene.

Henson, Hilary. 1974. British social anthropologists and language: a history of separate development. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Herder, J.G. 1803. Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man. Translated by T. Churchill (ed.) London: J. Johnson/L. Hansard.

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, Anna. 2013. The Aranda’s Pepa: An introduction to Carl Strehlow’s Masterpiece Die Aranda-und Loritja-StĂ€mme in Zentral-Australien (1907-1920). Canberra: ANU E Press.

Moore, David. 2014. German Lutheran missionaries and the linguistic landscape of Central Australia 1890–1910. History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences. Available at: https://hiphilangsci.net/2014/10/02/german-lutheran-missionaries-and-the-linguistic-landscape-of-central-australia-1890-1910

Rössler, Hans (ed.) 2012. Friedrich Bauer, Begegnungen. Neuendettelsau: Freimund-Verlag.

Schleicher, August. [1850] 1983. Die Sprachen Europas in systematischer Übersicht: Linguistische Untersuchungen. New edition with an introductory article by E.F.K. Koerner. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Schleiermacher, Friedrich. [1813] 2000. On the different methods of translation. Translated by Susan Bernofsky. In Lawrence Venuti (ed.) The Translation Studies Reader (3rd edition). London: Routledge, 43-63.

Spencer, Baldwin and Gillen, F.J. 1904. The northern tribes of Central Australia. London: Macmillan.

Strehlow, Carl. 1907–1920. Die Aranda-und Loritja-StĂ€mme in Zentral-Australien. Frankfurt am Main: Joseph Baer and Co.

Strehlow, Carl. 1909. Aranda and Loritja wordlist. Unpublished manuscript located at the Strehlow Research Centre, Alice Springs, NT.

Strehlow, Carl. 1910. Aranda and Loritja Grammar. Unpublished manuscript SH-SP-46-47 located at the Strehlow Research Centre, Alice Springs, Northern Territory.

Veit, Walter. 1991. In search of Carl Strehlow: Lutheran missionary and Australian anthropologist. In J. Tampke and D. Walker (eds). From Berlin to the Burdekin: The German Contribution to the Development of Australian Science, Exploration and the Arts, Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 108-134.

Wendt, Reinhard. 2001. Sammeln, Vernetzen, Auswerten. Missionare und ihr Beitrag zum Wandel europĂ€ischer Weltsicht. TĂŒbingen: Gunther Narr.

How to cite this post

Moore, David. 2016. Missionary linguistics and the German contribution to Central Australian language research and fieldwork 1890-1910. History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences. https://hiphilangsci.net/2016/10/21/missionary-linguistics-and-the-german-contribution-to-central-australian-language-research-and-fieldwork-1890-1910

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Posted in 19th century, 20th century, Article, Australia, Field linguistics, History, Linguistics, Missionary Linguistics
8 comments on “Missionary linguistics and the German contribution to Central Australian language research and fieldwork 1890-1910
  1. sarahpyper says:

    HI david
    I enjoyed your article
    do you know of any references to the Catholic German missionaries -e g Worms, who contributed to linguistics and anthropology , through their study of language and myths..

  2. moored03 says:

    Hi Sarah,
    Catholic missionaries include Wilhelm Schmidt who was based in Austria. He wrote Die Gliederung der Australischen Sprachen, a comprehensive survey of records of Australian languages which had been recorded up to that time (1919). There are linguistic and anthropological contributions in Anthropos, the journal that he founded. He was based upon the humanistic traditions of Central Europe, similar to that of the Lutheran and other Protestant missionaries.

  3. moored03 says:

    Unfortunately Die Gliederung der Australischen Sprachen ‘The Structure of the Australian Languages’ has, to my knowledge, never been translated into English like a lot of past works that were published in German. That was at a time when German was more of an international language of science, for many subject areas it was the main language. There are references to Schmidt and the Vienna School in several histories of anthropology. There is an interesting discussion in Suzanne Marchand’s chapter in Penny, H. Glenn and Matti Bunzl, Worldly Provincialism: German anthropology in the Age of Empire.
    There are other books by Schmidt which have been translated into English: ‘The Culture Historical method in Ethnology’ for example on anthropology and others on the study of religion.

    • sarahpyper says:

      thanks again David
      so – next question is where do yo find these works – would the Uni have them in their library
      I am interested in the Germans and their work int eh Kimberley as I think that they were much more interested in exploring the world view of the people they worked with – and that included extensive recordings of language, art and mythology. So I am interested to read what I can – living in Broome can be bit of a hurdle when you want o access libraries!!

  4. moored03 says:

    Sarah, I sympathise as I live in Alice Springs. The only copy of Die Gliederung is in Darwin library, not for loan. I find it difficult to get books which are about the Northern Territory. I have resorted to buying them from online booksellers.

    Histories of anthropology would be in uni libraries, and also journal articles in Oceania, Anthropos and others.

    Schmidt’s fieldworker colleagues who worked in the Kimberley- Nekes and Worms published in English I recall. William McGregor in ‘Encountering Aboriginal languages’ has written about earlier fieldwork in the Kimberley and in the Handbook of languages of the Kimberley. Claire Bowern has also written about earlier fieldwork.

  5. David Nash says:

    Classification of the Australian languages : the geographical, bibliographical and linguistic bases of the study of the Australian languages / translated from the German by Dymphna Clark [for the A.I.A.S.] in 1972 is in AIATSIS Library, MS 766:MS 813 http://catalogue.aiatsis.gov.au

  6. moored03 says:

    Thanks David, good to know about

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