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Guthrie, Malcolm

Identity Statement

Reference code(s): GB 0102 PP MS 27
Held at: School of Oriental and African Studies
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Full title: Guthrie, Malcolm
Date(s): Created 1918-1978
Level of description: Collection (fonds)
Extent: 32 boxes
Name of creator(s): Guthrie | Malcolm | 1903-1972 | Professor of Bantu languages


Administrative/Biographical history:

Malcolm Guthrie was born in 1903, in Hove, Sussex, the son of a Scottish father and Dutch mother. After leaving school, he gained a BSc in metallurgy at Imperial College, London, thus perpetuating the strong engineering tradition of the Guthrie family. However, shortly after graduating, he felt called to work in the Church and enrolled at Spurgeon's College to study for the Ministry in 1925. He subsequently took up a pastorate in Rochester, Kent. He married Margaret Helen Near in 1931.

In 1932, he was posted to Leopoldville as a missionary with the Baptist Missionary Society, where his interest in language work developed. By 1934 he had published his Lingala Grammar and Dictionary, the first of several books on Lingala including a translation of the New Testament. During his 1935 furlough he studied at the School of Oriental Studies (later the School of Oriental and African Studies). On returning home from the mission field in 1940 he became lecturer, and subsequently senior lecturer at SOAS in 1942. During two years study leave 1942-1944 he undertook a linguistic field-study throughout Bantu Africa, collecting much of the data he used in his comparative language work. His primary interests included tonology, which became the subject of his doctoral thesis, The Tonal Structure of Bemba, and classification, which led to the publication of The Classification of the Bantu Languages in 1948. By 1950, Malcolm Guthrie was Head of the Department of African Languages and Culture at the School of Oriental and African Studies, a post he held for 18 years. In addition to this post he was a member of several boards including the Board of Studies in Oriental and African Languages and Study (Chairman from 1960 to 1965); the Board of Studies in Anthropology, Comparative Linguistics and Theology; the Board of the Faculty of Arts (Vice-Dean from 1960 to 1967); the Advisory Boards in Colonial and Religious Studies; the Committee of Management of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies; the Committee of the British and Foreign Bible Society and the African Studies Association of the UK.

He undertook extensive study of Bemba, Lingala, Kongo, Fang, Mfinu and the Teke languages, working on over 200 Bantu languages. Through his work on classification, he developed a means of establishing the genetic relationship between languages by using his famous two-stage method. This involved firstly collecting lexical items with a common meaning, which could be related by consistent sound shifts and correspondences and symbolising them by creating (hypothetical) starred forms collectively known as Common Bantu. He then interpreted the inferences from this data in terms of pre-history, to present a hypothesis of Bantu origins from a common ancestor language. By 1960 Guthrie had finished stage one of his magnum opus Comparative Bantu, which appeared in 4 volumes published in 1967 (volume 1), 1970 (volumes 3 and 4) and 1971 (volume 2).

During 1966-1968, Guthrie suffered from ill health. His wife also died from cancer in 1968. That same year he was elected Fellow of the British Academy, the first time this honour had been bestowed upon anyone in the field of African language study. He died unexpectedly on 22 November 1972 of a heart attack, leaving his work on Bemba Grammar, General Bantu Grammar, Lingala material and planned work on Teke unfinished. Some of the preparatory material for these works can be found in this collection, in addition to much of the data he used in the compilation of Comparative Bantu.


Scope and content/abstract:

Papers, 1918-1978, of and relating to Malcolm Guthrie, including personal material; field data, grammar and vocabulary notes on over 180 Bantu languages (major section on Bemba); notes on his comparative work on the Bantu languages; early drafts of the four volumes of Comparative Bantu; and general notes on the features of Bantu grammar.

Access & Use

Language/scripts of material:
English and Bantu languages

System of arrangement:

The material is arranged into five sections: personal material; specific Bantu languages; comparative Bantu material; general Bantu material; miscellaneous material.

Conditions governing access:


Conditions governing reproduction:

No publication without written permission. Apply to archivist in the first instance.

Finding aids:

Unpublished handlist, including an index of languages.

Archival Information

Archival history:

Immediate source of acquisition:

The collection is the property of the Baptist Missionary Society, held in trust by SOAS.

Allied Materials

Related material:

The School of Oriental and African Studies also holds other papers on African languages, including those of Archibald Norman Tucker (Ref: PP MS 43) and Peter Hackett (Ref: MS 380514).

The Baptist Missionary Society Archive and Library is held at the Angus Library, Regent's Park College, Oxford.

National Register of Archives: Click here to view NRA record

Publication note:

Description Notes

Archivist's note:

Rules or conventions:

Date(s) of descriptions:
15 May 2000

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