The Thinking of Speaking
Issue #5 September / October 2013
Otto Dempwolff
Islands of Language
by Sofia Ozols
September / October 2013 | 

German linguist and anthropologist Otto Dempwolff started as a medical man and soldier, but later found a path to studying languages, and he became famous for his research into Austronesian languages.

His Life

Otto Henry Louis August Dempwolff was born on May 25, 1871, in Pillau, Province of Prussia, as the first of two children. He graduated from the Luisen-Gymnasium in Memel in 1888 then went on to study medicine at various universities, including Berlin, Königsberg, Tübingen, Marburg and Leipzig. He received his doctorate from Berlin in 1892 then took his final exams the next year in Tübingen.

Dempwolff completed his military service in Munich, spending the last months of it as a doctor in Tilsit, Hamburg. After that, he applied for a job in tropical medicine at the New Guinea Company, but was turned down because he was too young. He was advised by them to gain more experience, so he served for two trips to South America as a ship's doctor, and when he returned, he was given a contract with the company, where he worked from 1895 to 1897. After leaving them, he made another two trips to South America, again as a ship's doctor.

Dempwolff served as a medical officer in the imperial protection force of the German Southwest and East Africa from 1898 to 1911. During that time, he was part of a two-year expedition for malaria research with Robert Koch in German New Guinea from 1901 to 1903. However, he fell ill with malaria a few times, and finally resigned from the force in 1911. During his travels, he worked with the Melanesian languages of the Pacific as well as Sandawe in Africa. He also examined the extinction of some of the nations on the islands.

Carl Meinhof

Dempwolff worked for a few months as a doctor in the Colonial Office in London and it was here that he met Carl Meinhof, a German linguist, and the two began a lifelong friendship. It may have been that meeting and friendship that first got him really interested in linguistics. He began studying at the Hamburg Colonial Institute, which is now the University of Hamburg, in 1911.

At the end of 1913, Dempwolff traveled for the third time to New Guinea, but this time as a private individual for his own language studies. However, when the first World War hit the region, he interned in Australia before being deported back to Germany, where he spent the rest of the war as a military doctor in Saarbrücken and Silesia.

This was the first published comprehensive theory about how many of the languages spoken on the islands of Southeast Asia and the Pacific Ocean could be traced back to one original proto-language.

In 1919, the University of Hamburg was founded officially by a formal decree of parliament, and it was the first university in Germany with a true democratic foundation. In its first years, Austronesian and African studies were part of a common curriculum. It was then that Dempwolff started working in the Department of African and South Seas languages there, under his friend Professor Meinhof. He worked a little with the African languages, but he was mostly involved with the Melanesian and Austronesian languages, and in 1920, he wrote his habilitation thesis (the highest academic qualification a scholar can achieve on his own pursuit) on Indonesian lip sounds, Die Lautentsprechungen der indonesischen Lippenlaute in einigen anderen austronesischen Sprachen.

In 1931, on his 60th birthday, Dempwolff received an honorary doctorate from the University of Hamburg and became head of the newly created Seminar für Indonesische und Südseesprachen (Institute of Indonesian and Pacific Languages), which is still active today, focusing on the whole of Austronesia, including not just Indonesia, but also Malaysia and the Philippines, Madagascar and the South Pacific. Dempwolff died in Hamburg in 1938 at the age of 67.

His Work

Among Dempwolff's achievements is his three-volume work phonology of Austronesian, Vergleichende Lautlehre des austronesischen Wortschatzes (Comparative phonology of Austronesian vocabulary) published between 1934 and 1938. This was the first published comprehensive theory about how many of the languages spoken on the islands of Southeast Asia and the Pacific Ocean could be traced back to one original proto-language.

Univeristy of Hamburg, main building

The work he devoted the most time to before his death was a grammatical description of Jabêm, Grammatik der Jabêm-Sprache auf Neuguinea (Jabem-language grammar of New Guinea), published after his death in 1939. Jabêm is an Austronesian language which was adopted by the German Lutheran mission church in what is now Morobe Province, Papua New Guinea, and it was at their request that Dempwolff wrote the grammar. He made sure that his grammatical description was understandable to the lay person, especially since he considered Jabêm to be the most difficult Melanesian language he had ever encountered. This work was very well done, and is still greatly used today.

Otto Dempwolff - Islands of Language
Writer: Sofia Ozols
Taro Taylor: Sun, Sea, Sand And Volcano (title)
Irmgard Duttge: Otto_Dempwolff
Merlin Senger: Main building of the University of Hamburg
Petey: Carl Meinhof
• "Otto Dempwolff" Wikipedia <>
• "85 Years of Southeast Asian Studies in Hamburg" IIAS Online <>
• "Otto Dempwolff (1871-1938), Sprachwissenschaftler" <>

All images are Copyright - CC BY-SA (Creative Commons Share Alike) by their respective owners, except for Petey, which is Public Domain (PD) or unless otherwise noted.


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