Ernst Westphal

Ernst Oswald Johannes Gotthard Gotthilf Westphal (1919-1990) was a South African linguist and an expert in Bantu and non-Bantu Click languages.

He was born in Venda (now part of Limpopo province) into a family of German Lutheran missionaries who had been deeply involved in South African cultural life for over a hundred years. His grandfather, for example, was a private tutor to Sol Plaatje while the young writer was a still a student at the Mission Station in Pniel in the Northern Cape.

Although he was fluent in German, English and Afrikaans as a child, Venda was his first language, and he began by studying Southern Bantu languages.

He studied Zulu and Southern Sotho under Clement Martyn Doke at the University of the Witwatersrand, and lectured there before becoming a lecturer in Bantu languages at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. His doctoral thesis, The Sentence in Venda (University of London, 1955), is said to have been based entirely on his own knowledge of the language.

He was Professor of African Languages in the School of African Studies at UCT between 1962 and 1984. Westphal was a world-renowned authority on non-Bantu Click languages and his flair for languages was staggering.

In November 2013, the Centre for African Language Diversity (CALDI) hosted a conference at the University of Cape Town, entitled Ernst Westphal: A truly South African pioneer linguist. Aside from the fascinating academic discussions by those most learned on Westphal’s work, CALDi was honoured to have Karin Kastern, the niece of Westphal, in attendance on the day. She, along with his student and colleague, Rob Borland, provided invaluable insight into Ernst Westphal as a person – from oft-disgruntled teacher, to beloved uncle of his brother’s children.

Westphal’s tombstone, which is, surprisingly, to be found in Port Appin, Scotland, carries the words ‘A True Son of Venda’. – Biography draws on the obituary by David Rycroft published in African Languages and Cultures, Vol. 5 (1992), pp. 91–95.