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Wilhelm Bleek

Wilhelm Bleek
Wilhelm Bleek
Wilhelm Bleek
Born 8 March 1827 (1827-03-08)
Berlin, German Confederation
Died Did not recognize date. Try slightly modifying the date in the first parameter. (aged 48)
Mowbray, Cape Colony
Occupation German linguist

Wilhelm Heinrich Immanuel Bleek (8 March 1827 – 17 August 1875) was a German linguist. His work included A Comparative Grammar of South African Languages and his great project jointly executed with Lucy Lloyd: The Bleek and Lloyd Archive of ǀxam and !kun texts.


  • Biography 1
    • San people (Bushmen) 1.1
    • Death 1.2
  • References 2
  • External links 3


Wilhelm Heinrich Immanuel Bleek was born in Berlin on 8 March 1827. He was the eldest son of Friedrich Bleek, Professor of Theology at Berlin University and then at the University of Bonn, and Augusta Charlotte Marianne Henriette Sethe. He graduated from the University of Bonn in 1851 with a doctorate in linguistics, after a period in Berlin where he went to study Hebrew and where he first became interested in African languages. Bleek's thesis featured an attempt to link North African and Khoikhoi (or what were then called Hottentot) languages – the thinking at the time being that all African languages were connected. After graduating in Bonn, Bleek returned to Berlin and worked with a zoologist, Dr Wilhelm K H Peters, editing vocabularies of East African languages. His interest in African languages was further developed during 1852 and 1853 by learning Egyptian from Professor Karl Richard Lepsius, whom he met in Berlin in 1852.

Bleek was appointed official linguist to Dr philologist, particularly in the Cape. While working for Grey he continued with his philological research and contributed to various publications during the late 1850s. Bleek requested examples of African literature from missionaries and travellers, such as the Revd W Kronlein who provided Bleek with Namaqua texts in 1861.

In 1859 Bleek briefly returned to Europe in an effort to improve his poor health but returned to the Cape and his research soon after. In 1861 Bleek met his future wife, Jemima Lloyd, at the boarding house where he lived in Cape Town (run by a Mrs Roesch), while she was waiting for a passage to England, and they developed a relationship through correspondence. She returned to Cape Town from England the following year.

Bleek married Jemima Lloyd on 22 November 1862. The Bleeks first lived at The Hill in Mowbray but moved in 1875 to Charlton House. Jemima's sister, Lucy Lloyd, joined the household after the couple's wedding in 1862.

When Grey was appointed Governor of New Zealand, he presented his collection to the National Library of South Africa on condition that Bleek be its curator, a position he occupied from 1862 until his death in 1875. In addition to this work, Bleek supported himself and his family by writing regularly for Het Volksblad throughout the 1860s and publishing the first part of his A Comparative Grammar of South African Languages in London in 1862. The second part was also published in London in 1869 with the first chapter appearing in manuscript form in Cape Town in 1865. Unfortunately, much of Bleek's working life in the Cape, like that of Lucy Lloyd after him, was characterised by extreme financial hardship which made his research even more difficult to continue with.

San people (Bushmen)

Bleek's first contact with San people (Bushmen) was with prisoners at Robben Island and the Cape Town Gaol and House of Correction, in 1857. He conducted interviews with a few of these prisoners, which he used in later publications. These people all came from the Burgersdorp and Colesberg regions and variations of one similar-sounding "Bushman" language. Bleek was particularly keen to learn more about this "Bushman" language and compare it to examples of "Bushman" vocabulary and language earlier noted by Lichtenstein and obtained from missionaries at the turn of the 19th century.

In 1863 Resident Magistrate Louis Anthing introduced the first ǀXam-speakers to Bleek. He brought three men to Cape Town from the Kenhardt district to stand trial for attacks on farmers (the prosecution was eventually waived by the Attorney General). In 1866 two San prisoners from the Achterveldt near Calvinia were transferred from the Breakwater prison to the Cape Town prison, making it easier for Bleek to meet them. With their help, Bleek compiled a list of words and sentences and an alphabetical vocabulary. Most of these words and sentences were provided by Adam Kleinhardt (see Bleek I-1, UCT A1.4.1).

In 1870 Bleek and Lloyd, by now working together on the project to learn "Bushman" language and record personal narratives and folklore, became aware of the presence of a group of 28 ǀXam prisoners (San from the central interior of southern Africa) at the Breakwater Convict Station and received permission to relocate one prisoner to their home in Mowbray so as to learn his language. The prison chaplain, Revd Fisk, was in charge of the selection of this individual – a young man named |a!kunta. But because of his youth, |a!kunta was unfamiliar with much of his people's folklore and an older man named ||kabbo was then permitted to accompany him. ||kabbo became Bleek and Lloyd's first real teacher, a title by which he later regarded himself. Over time, members of ||kabbo's family and other families lived with Bleek and Lloyd in Mowbray, and were interviewed by them. Many of the |xam-speakers interviewed by Bleek and Lloyd were related to one another. Bleek and Lloyd learned and wrote down their language, first as lists of words and phrases and then as stories and narratives about their lives, history, folklore and remembered beliefs and customs.

Bleek, along with Lloyd, made an effort to record as much anthropological and ethnographic information as possible. This included genealogies, places of origin, and the customs and daily life of the informants. Photographs and measurements (some as specified by Thomas Huxley's global ethnographic project, see Godby 1996) were also taken of all their informants in accordance with the norms of scientific research of the time in those fields. More intimate and personal painted portraits were also commissioned of some of the xam teachers.

Although Bleek and Lloyd interviewed other individuals during 1875 and 1876 (Lloyd doing this alone after Bleek's death), most of their time was spent interviewing only six individual |xam contributors. Bleek wrote a series of reports on the language and the literature and folklore of the |xam-speakers he interviewed, which he sent to the Cape Secretary for Native Affairs. This was first in an attempt to gain funding to continue with his studies and then also to make Her Majesty's Colonial Government aware of the need to preserve San folklore as an important part of the nation's heritage and traditions. In this endeavour Bleek must surely have been influenced by Louis Anthing.


Bleek died in Mowbray on 17 August 1875, aged 48, and was buried in Wynberg Anglican cemetery in Cape Town along with his two infant children, who had died before him. His all-important work recording the |Xam language and literature was continued and expanded by Lucy Lloyd, fully supported by his wife Jemima. In his obituary in the South African Mail of 25 August 1875, he was lauded in the following terms: 'As a comparative philologist he stood in the foremost rank, and as an investigator and authority on the South African languages, he was without peer.


  •  Lane-Poole, Stanley (1886). "Bleek, Wilhelm Heinrich Immanuel". In  
  • Handbook of African, Australian and Polynesian Philology. (3vols.) Cape Town – London, (1858–63)
  • A Comparative Grammar of South African Languages. London, Trübner & Co. (1862: Part I; 1869: Part II)
  • Reynard the Fox in South Africa; or Hottentot Fables and Tales. (Chiefly translated from original manuscripts in the library of His Excellency Sir George Grey) London, Trübner & Co. (1864)
  • Über den Ursprung der Sprache. (Herausgegeben mit einem Vorwort von Dr. Ernst Haeckel.) Weimar, H. Böhlau (1868)
  • Specimens of Bushman Folklore. (by Wilhelm Bleek and Lucy Lloyd) London, G. Allen (1911)
  • Otto H. Spohr: Wilhelm Heinrich Immanuel Bleek, a bio-bibliographical sketch. Cape Town, University of Cape Town Libraries (1962)
  • Walter Köppe: Philologie im südlichen Afrika: Wilhelm Heinrich Immanuel Bleek (1827–1875). Zeitschrift für Germanistik, Neue Folge 3 (1998)
  • Konrad Körner: Linguistics and evolution theory. (Three essays by August Schleicher, Ernst Haeckel and Wilhelm Bleek) Amsterdam-Philadelphia, John Benjamins Publishing Company (1983)
  • Deacon, J and Dowson, T. (eds) 1996. Voices from the Past. Johannesburg: Wits University Press
  • Skotnes, P. 1996 (ed) Miscast: negotiating the presence of the Bushmen. Cape Town: University of Cape Town Press.
  • Lewis-Williams, J.D. 2000. Voices that float from afar. Cape Town: David Philip.

External links

  • Bleek and Lloyd Archive online
  • Memory of the World – The Bleek Collection
  • Wilhelm Bleek and Lucy Lloyd, Philologists
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