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Malcolm Guthrie

Part 2: Marking his Mark

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Making his Mark
Over the winter of 1956-7 Guthrie returned to West Africa to further study Bantu Languages, including several which had previously been undocumented. During his tenure at the Department of Africa he published a number of articles and monographs on the classification of Bantu languages (including Lingala, Bemba, Mfinu, and Teke), their morphology and syntax and their possible proto-Bantu origins. In 1966 Guthrie was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in recognition of his work on African historical linguistics.

Between 1967 and 1971 Malcolm Guthrie published the four volumes of his Comparative Bantu: An introduction to the comparative linguistics and prehistory of the Bantu languages, which established him as the leading Bantu scholar of the 70s. It was not without its critics however. Comparisons were made to Greenberg's work on African language groups, for example.

Guthrie's wife Margaret wife died of cancer in 1968. It signaled a winding down in his academic life. Guthrie retired in 1970, becoming professor emeritus of Bantu Languages and Honorary Fellow of SOAS. Malcolm Guthrie died, unexpectedly, of a heart attack on 22 November 1972 at the age of 69.

His Legacy at SOAS
Whilst head of the Department of Africa (Department of Languages and Cultures of Africa, in full) at the School of Oriental and African Studies he oversaw a doubling in size of the department and a similar increase in the number of languages studied and taught. Plus an increased interest in African literature, music and art, and the study of Islam in Africa.

He initiated the publication of African Language Studies and was its first editor, was a founder member of the African Studies Association of the United Kingdom, member of the Board of Studies in Oriental and African Languages and Study (and was Chairman from 1960 to 1965).

Ground Breaking Work in the Origins of the Bantu Language
Guthrie undertook a broad and detailed study of Bemba, Lingala, Kongo. Fang, Mfinu and Teke languages, as well as working with over 200 languages and dialects considered to be Bantu languages.

Guthrie rejected Meinhof's reconstruction of proto-Bantu (or Ur-Bantu as it was then called) and built up his own data set of word and tonal correspondences based on over 300 Bantu languages (28 on particular, chosen at random) and dialects. He divided Bantu into fifteen geographical zones, subdivided into 85 groups, in order to give the data a geographical association.

His masterwork was the result of a long, two stage study. First Guthrie collected lexical items which had common meaning, and which could be connected through tonal shifts and correspondences to a set of 'starred forms' which he called 'Common Bantu'. The second part of the study involved interpreting inferences from the data to suggest the pre-history of Bantu languages, the proto-Bantu. He set out his approach in a paper, A Two-stage Method of Comparative Bantu Study, published in 1962. He called his set of correspondences Common Bantu, as a reference to its potential use for identifying proto-Bantu . He published his initial findings in a couple of papers (Bantu origins: a tentative new hypothesis and Some developments in the prehistory of the Bantu languages) in 1962.

Between 1969 and 71 he published his four volume Comparative Bantu: An introduction to the comparative linguistics and prehistory of the Bantu languages, which established him as the leading Bantu scholar of the 70s. The first two volumes describe his methodology, analysis and a list of possible proto-Bantu words. The second two volumes included his set of 2,338 'starred forms' and a commentary on their collation.

Guthrie concluded that proto-Bantu may have originated between the upper Lualaba and upper Kwilu rivers, northwest of Katanga province, Congo. It tied up, to some extent with contemporary archaeological understanding, but was opposed to Greenberg's hypothesis that Bantu languages were merely a sub-family of the larger Niger-Congo group. He was criticized for limiting his analysis to only consider Bantu languages, and that he may have been to rigorous in excluding potential data (such as his use of a randomly selected group of representative languages and dialects in the analysis). But Guthrie remained firmly convinced of the rightness of his work.

Guthrie's classification of Bantu languages into geographic zones is still in use today (with the addition of a group centered around the Great Lakes).

Selected Books and Papers
The Classification of the Bantu Languages, Oxford University Press (for the International African Institute), 1948.
'Bantu origins: a tentative new hypothesis', Journal of African Languages, Volume 1, pp 9-21 Some developments in the prehistory of the Bantu languages, Journal of African History, Volume 3, pp273-282, 1962.
'A Two-stage Method of Comparative Bantu Study', African Language Studies, Volume 3, pp1-24, 1962.
Comparative Bantu: An introduction to the comparative linguistics and prehistory of the Bantu languages, Volume 1, Gregg International Publishers 1967.
Comparative Bantu: An introduction to the comparative linguistics and prehistory of the Bantu languages, Volume 2 Bantu Prehistory, Inventory and Indexes, Gregg International Publishers, 1971.
Comparative Bantu: An introduction to the comparative linguistics and prehistory of the Bantu languages, Volume 3 & 4, Gregg International Publishers, 1970.

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