Akan Teleteaching Course

Annex 8: Christaller

Chronological table

1827, Nov. 19

Born in Winnenden/Stuttgart


Clerk apprentice to the town president at Winnenden

1848, Sept.

Admission to the 4-year missionary course at the Basel mission

1852, Nov. 7

Ordination as a pastor in Backnang

1853, Jan. 25

Arrival at Christiansborg (Osu), transferred to the Akropong mission station in Akuapem

1857, Jan.

Married Emilie Ziegler from Waiblingen


Returned to Germany due to bad health

1862, June

Departure to the Gold Coast, Station: Aburi

1865, Febr.

Transferred to Kyebi (Akyem)


Returned to Akropong-Akuapem

1866, Aug. 13

Death of his wife (with whom he had 4 sons and 1 daughter)

1868, Summer

Returned to Germany, settled in Schorndorf/Stuttgart


Edition and translation work for the Akan language


Married Bertha Ziegler (who also bore him 4 sons and 1 daughter), a sister to his first wife

1895, Dec. 16

Death of J.G. Christaller

Johann Gottlieb Christaller is hailed as the "founder of scientific linguistic research in West Africa" (Jungraithmayr and Möhlig, 1983: 62). If one thinks of Christaller as one of the early pioneers of the study of African languages what comes to mind first are his grammar and dictionary of the Akan language (Christaller 1875, 1881). One might say that his ear was tuned - to a degree unattained by anyone before him and rarely after him - to the fine points of the phonetic and

melodic properties of the languages he studied, as evidenced for instance in the first systematic treatise of African tone languages (Christaller 1893, Bearth 1994), that he came as close as anyone in his time could conceivably come in describing the grammar of African languages in their own 'emic' categories rather than in categories borrowed from Latin grammar, and that he was probably the first to discover and describe the richness and originality of idiomatic expression of, in particular, the languages spoken at the Gold Coast, and their potential for literary use. His high estimate of African traditions is reflected, among other things, in his collection of 3600 Twi proverbs (Christaller 1879/1990). One might also, considering Christaller's first calling as a missionary, mention the translation of the Bible into Twi which, according to the concordant testimony of his educated African contemporaries, was, within the strict limits which such an enterprise imposes on literary creativity, an outstanding achievement in terms of idiomaticity and poetic expression.

Christaller's roots were in Southern Germany, to be specific in Winnenden where Christaller was born in the year 1827, was raised and received his education, and where the centenary celebrations in memory of his death took place in Decembre 1995; second, with the nearby town of Schorndorf which, after his definitive return from Africa in 1868, became for more than a quarter of a century the centre not only of the scholarly work by which he is best known, but also of the vast authorial and editorial work the bulk of which is dedicated to the development of Christian and educational literature in the languages which he had studied in depth during two relatively short periods (1853-58; 1862-68) spent on the Gold Coast.

As already pointed out, Christaller's scientific work of linguistic description derives directly from his practical objectives, which can be summarised in two recurrent key motives: (1) enable Europeans to communicate in African languages, and (2) enable Africans - all Africans, not just the elite - to access to knowledge - all knowledge worthy to be known, not limited to the Bible alone - through the written medium in their own languages. His grammar (Christaller 1875) and his dictionary (Christaller 1881) - the two works on which his lasting fame rests - were motivated, to quite an extent, by the need for standardisation which he considered to be an indispensable prerequisite to both objectives.

In this he certainly was not unique. Other missionary-linguists of his time did the same and for similar reasons. Some of them are undisputed leading figures of the early study of African languages and cultures: William Bentley for Kikongo, Héli Châtelain for Kimbundu, Johann Ludwig Krapf for Swahili, Henri Junod in Mozambique, to mention only a few names.

What then is it that distinguishes Christaller as a scholar? What comes immediately to mind is his perception of otherwise neglected phenomena of language and the methodological throroughness with which he pursued his inquiry into these phenomena, far beyond what the immediate practical objectives would have required. Christaller united in his personality and in his scientific work the passion of the communicator and the pioneering spirit of the discoverer with the meticulous mind of the philologist. He is said to have been the first to describe an African language without forcing it into the straightjacket of the categories of Latin and Greek grammar. Unquestionably, he was the first to give an adequate account of the complexities of a West African tone system.

The outstanding quality of his lexicographic work is underlined by the fact that his dictionary is up till now the main reference work and source for Akan words and idiomatic expressions, and for their usage. It has been said, and rightly so, that it is properly speaking encyclopedic in character, and none less than Lepsius himself called it a model both as to its scientific accuracy and completeness, and as to its practical usefulness for the academic and the missionary communities (Anonymous, 1929: 37).

In sum, Christaller became the scholar as who he is known in pursuing his primary calling of a missionary. Being a missionary also meant being an educator. What he felt he had to do to meet his objectives as a missionary and as an educator is what let him become, in developing his capacities, a pioneer of the study of African languages and cultures, a scholar, and a mediator between cultures.

-> References

Excerpted from "J.G. Christaller's holistic view of language and culture. Its influence on C.C. Reindorf's History", by Thomas Bearth. In: "African History in the 19th Century: C.C. Reindorf and Samuel Johnson", ed. by Paul Jenkins. Basel: Basler Afrika-Bibliographien