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Malcolm Guthrie

Professor of Bantu languages, particularly known for his classification of Bantu languages (1969-1971), and head of the African department (1952-1970) of the School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

Date of birth: 10 February 1903, Hove, Essex, UK
Date of death: 22 November 1972

An Early Life
Malcolm Guthrie was born in Hove, Sussex, on 10 February 1903 to a Scottish father and Dutch mother. He attended school at Ipswich, where he was a diligent and bright student, although he failed his first attempt at School Certificate French.

Following in his father's engineering footsteps, Guthrie went to college in London, taking a BSc in metallurgy at Imperial College. He also became an Associate of the Royal School of Mines. He graduated in 1925.

Missionary Work
After graduation, Malcolm Guthrie experienced a change in vocation, and began training for the Baptist ministry at Spurgeon's College in South London. Whilst at Spurgeon's he showed particular proficiency at languages, including Greek, Latin and Hebrew. After Spurgeon's College he spent two years as minister of Rochester Baptist church.

Guthrie had decided to undertake missionary work in the Belgian Congo (now Democratic Republic of the Congo), and made early preparations in 1930 by taking classes in Swahili at the School of Oriental Studies at Finsbury Circus. In 1931 he married Margaret Near -- her father was minister of Penge Baptist Church, which was close to Spurgeon's College.

In 1932 Malcolm and Margaret Guthrie responded to an appeal by the Baptist Missionary Society for a married minister to go to Kinshasa (later Leopoldville, now Kinshasa again) in the Belgian Congo.

During their eight years in the Congo, Malcolm Guthrie became fluent in the local Bantu language: Lingala. He wrote a Lingala grammar and dictionary, translated the New Testament, and composed hymns in the traditional Lingala style.

The Guthries came back to London briefly in 1935, when Malcolm attended the School of Oriental Studies (became School of Oriental and African Studies, SOAS, in 1938) for further study of African languages.

Margaret Guthrie became seriously ill in 1940, curtailing his time as a missionary. They made their way back to the UK, traveling up through Africa to the Mediterranean. Taking a coal ship across from Algeria to Marseille (Malcolm Guthrie worked his passage), only to find that their plan to travel up through France was ruined by the German invasion to the north.

A Life in Academia
Back in London, Malcolm Guthrie decided to further his studies of African languages, applying for courses at SOAS. Instead he was offered a post as Senior Lecturer in Bantu Languages, and started at their new college location, Russell Square, in January 1942. He joined a relatively small department of five full time lecturers and several part-timers (the latter included Dr LSB Leakey and Jomo Kenyatta).

He laid the foundations for his later work on Bantu languages through field work in British East Africa and Central Africa between August 1942 and April 1944. (He also worked for the British Council whilst in East Africa.) His research concentrated on comparative linguistic data and tonology. Guthrie looked at over 130 Bantu languages and dialects, and studied several in more depth -- in particular Bemba, Sukuma and Yao.

On his return to London, Guthrie developed his research into a PhD thesis, The tonal structure of Bemba, which was awarded in 1945. In 1947 he was made Reader in Bantu Languages. The following year he published the first of his key African historical linguistics articles: The Classification of the Bantu Languages .

Guthrie returned to Africa again in 1949, this time to study Bantu languages in Moyen-Congo (French 'Middle Congo', now Republic of the Congo), Gabon and Cameroun. The following year he was appointed Head of the Department of Africa at SOAS. In 1951 Guthrie was given the post of Chair of Bantu Languages, a position specifically created for him.
See Part 2: Marking his Mark

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