Wilhelm Bleek (Linguist)

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Wilhelm Bleek

Wilhelm Heinrich Immanuel Bleek (born March 8, 1827 in Berlin , † August 17, 1875 in Cape Town ) was a German linguist . His main work is a comparative grammar of the South African languages .


Wilhelm Bleek was born in Berlin in the Kingdom of Prussia as the eldest son of the theologian Friedrich Bleek . When Wilhelm was two years old, the family moved to Bonn because their father had obtained a professorship there. They first lived in two houses on Kölnstrasse and then a house near the minster, right next to the city wall. After attending high school Wilhelm enrolled in 1845 at the University of Bonn for studying theology and was 1845 Konkneipant member of the fraternity Fridericia Bonn . Bleek completed four semesters and in 1848 moved to Berlin for two semesters, where he heard from Lepsius . He returned to Bonn and received his doctorate in 1851 from the Rheinische-Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität with a thesis on the nominal classes of African languages. Since official linguistics were not interested in African languages ​​and even considered them unworthy of scientific investigation, Bleek saw no possibility of establishing himself in the academic field. Instead of completing his habilitation , he went to Cape Town just two years after completing his doctorate, where he accepted a job as a librarian. Here he was able to continue his research and devote himself to the study of the Bantu and Khoisan languages as well as the collection of African fairy tales and legends. In 1859 he returned to Germany for a short time. Since 1871 he was a foreign member of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences .

Bleek died in 1875 at the age of 48 in a Cape Town hospital. His sister-in-law Lucy Lloyd and daughter Dorothea continued his research.

Bleek publications are in addition to the work of the African explorer Heinrich Barth to the Central African languages the most important contributions to the African in the middle of the 19th century because they were not distorted by Christian missionary perspectives nor racialist considerations. He was related by marriage to Ernst Haeckel , the leading German Darwinist , who took a position on the question of whether the history of language could be reconstructed with the instruments of Darwinism borrowed from biology. His grammar of the Zulu and the introduction of his numbering system for the nominal classes, which is still used today, gained great importance . Elias Canetti considers his work on Bushman folklore , a collection of narratives from the San people, to be the most precious document of early humanity (cf. Mass and Power ).

Wilhelm Bleek could have made Bonn - along with Berlin through Heinrich Barth - the home of German African studies, but both researchers failed in Germany because of the resistance of established linguists, who considered studying African languages ​​to be beneath their dignity. Science only flourished again with Germany's entry into the circle of colonial powers, but primarily for the purpose of training administrative officials and colonial officers who knew the language.

Wilhelm Bleek's collections of stories from the San ( Bushman folklore ) had a strong influence on the literary work of the South African-British author Laurens van der Post , in particular his book The Lost World of the Kalahari .


  • De nominum generibus linguarum Africae australis, Copticae, Semiticarum aliarumque sexualium. Bonn (1851)
  • Handbook of African, Australian and Polynesian Philology. (3 vol.) Cape Town - London (1858–63)
  • A Comparative Grammar of South African Languages. London, Trübner & Co. (1862: Part I, Phonology ; 1869: Part II)
  • Reynard the Fox in South Africa; or Hottentot Fables and Tales. (Mainly translated from original manuscripts from the library of His Excellency Sir George Gray ) London, Trübner & Co. (1864)
  • Reineke Fuchs in Africa. Fables and tales of the natives. Weimar: Hermann Böhlau (1870), online
  • About the origin of language. (Edited with a foreword by Dr. Ernst Haeckel .) Weimar, H. Böhlau (1868) Online
  • Specimens of Bushman folklore. (By Wilhelm Bleek and Lucy Lloyd.) London, G. Allen (1911) ( online )


Web links

Commons : Wilhelm Bleek  - Collection of Images

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Franz Richarz: List of members of the Fridericia fraternity in Bonn (February 18, 1843 to autumn 1847) as well as the Arminia fraternity in Bonn (1847 to 1849) and the fraternity association Germania in Bonn (1843 to 1849). Bonn 1894, p. 8.
  2. ^ Member entry by Wilhelm Bleek at the Bavarian Academy of Sciences , accessed on January 2, 2017.