Nekes, Hermann Fr. Prof. Dr. (1875-1948)

Prepared by: 
Regina Ganter
Birth / Death: 

born 25 December 1975, Essen

died 28 October 1948, Kew (Melbourne), age 73

 

Expert on Bantu languages after seven years in Cameroon, professor at the orientalist seminary in Berlin for six years, taught comparative religion and linguistics at the Pallottine college in Limburg. Spent his last 13 years in Australia, including four years in Broome and was at the forefront of the emerging discipline of missiology with a prolific publication record.

 

 

Image of Fr. Nekes

Rev. Dr. Hermann Nekes: 'Professor of missiology, comparative religion, ethnography and
linguistics at the philological-theological Pallottine college'

Source: From an exhibition in the Pallottine Motherhouse, Limburg

 

 

Personal background

Hermann Nekes was one of seven children of sculptor Johann and Antonia née Keimer. His siblings were the sculptor Franz (b. 1873), Lina (b.1874), sculptor Johann (b. 1878), Wilhelmine (b. 1879), Luise (b. 1882) and August (b. 1885). As a child he belonged to the Herz-Jesu-Verein and aspired to become a missionary.1 He attended high school (Gymnasium) in Aachen, where he was not an outstanding student, achieving ‘satisfactory’ in 9 of 12 subjects and ‘good’ in ‘conduct’, ‘religion’ and ‘natural history’. In Aachen he lived with his uncle, a noted church musician Franz Nekes (1844-1914) conductor at the Aachen cathedral. Hermann was able to pledge between 300 and 400 Marks per year when he entered the Pallottine novitiate. He was admitted in January 1894, at age 19, with the intention of studying for the priesthood. He received private lessons for a year and was then drafted to military service (Landsturm 2nd Division).2 He then studied at the Jesuit Gregoriana University in Rome, where he was ordained in 1899 and was awarded his PhD in June 1900. People who knew Nekes described him as uncomplicated and modest.3

 

wNekes PhD transcript

 The PhD awarded to Dr. Nekes by the Gregoriana University in 1900. Source: 4


Cameroon linguistics

In April 1901 Rev. Dr. Nekes was placed in the Jaunde mission (now spelled Yaounde or Ewondo), which Fr. Heinrich Vieter (later bishop) commenced that year. After a spell in Germany during 1905 due to illness ('Schwarzwasserfieber') he returned to Cameroon in 1906 and was stationed at a new mission at Ikassa near the Nigerian border, from where he returned to Germany in 1908.5

He acquired three Bantu languages and profiled himself as a linguist, one of the first to scientifically describe the tonal structure of languages, with expertise in Bantu and Yaounde. He translated cathechisms, bible stories and prayer books published in several editions.6 From 1909 to 1915 he taught, together with Fr. Vieter, at the Seminar für Orientalische Sprachen at Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität founded in Berlin by chancellor Otto Bismarck in 1887 to prepare public servants for posting to the German colony.7 The Provincial Council in Limburg reluctantly agreed to second Nekes to Berlin. Professor Nekes recruited Vinzenz Tsala from Cameroon as a paid teaching assistant employed by the Department of Oriental Studies.8 (Similarly Karl Atangana was engaged as teaching assistant at the Hamburger Kolonialinstitut.9) During this period, free from the censorship requirements of the Pallottine Society,10 Nekes published profusely on the Bantu languages around the two main cities of Yaounde and Duala, with particular attention to tonology. He also paid attention to the cultural traditions he referred to as totemism and animism.

 

Professor Nekes returned to Limburg in 1915 but, as it turned out, in that year teaching at the Pallottine colleges was suspended because practically all their young scholars had been drafted into the military.11 With the Treaty of Versailles (1919) Germany lost its African colonies and the interest in African languages declined. Nekes became editor of the Pallottine mission newsletters Stern von Afrika (which became Stern der Heiden in 1921) and 'Kleiner Missionar'. After the war he started teaching ethnography, linguistics, missiology and comparative religion at Limburg and therefore brought significant new expertise to the training of missionaries in Limburg. 12 Reflecting on the relative influence of German and French colonialism on local languages, he published an essay in 1927 tracing English, German, Portuguese and Spanish influences on the emerging creole which threatened to displace indigenous languages, particularly since these were not taught in French colonial schools. He also observed some creative adaptations in indigenous languages to new phenomena, such as using the indigenous word for rope for 'telephone', the word for besmearing for 'writing' and the expression big fence for 'government stations'. 13

 

Language work in the Kimberley

Around 1927 Nekes started to work on the Kimberley languages. 14 At that time Fr. Georg Walter was preparing an ethnographic history of the Kimberley mission published in 1928 (translated as Australia: Land – People – Mission). Nekes began to gather the language material compiled by the Kimberley missionaries, including work by Fr. Alphonse Tachon, Fr. Nicholas Emo, Fr. Joseph Bischofs at Beagle Bay and Fr. Ernst Worms in Broome, and a book by W.H. Bird, former school master at Sunday Island on the ‘Chowie’ language of Sunday Island and the Buccaneer Islands. ("In Broome and Beagle Bay the blacks pronounce Chowie as Dzau (the z being the French j”15). Emo had compiled a dictionary and small grammar of the 'Yawuru' of Broome and Trappist Fr. Tachon had worked on Nyul-Nyul. Bischofs commented that he had used some earlier Trappist work but when he checked it with residents at Beagle Bay some of the words were unfamiliar, ‘possibly because of Disaster Bay where the Trappists had many faithful helpers’.16 (Tachon began to learn Nyul-Nyul in Derby.)

 

One of Nekes' Limburg students, Fr. Ernst Worms, was recruited for the Kimberley mission in 1930. Worms sent Nekes material from the Kimberley to be published in the newsletter.17 Other Pallottines in the Kimberley who knew Nekes personally included Fr. Scherzinger and Bishop Raible.18 They succeeded in persuading Nekes, now age 60, to continue his linguistic work in the Kimberley, where he arrived in 1935 as a member of a large team in company with Bishop Raible.19

Read more: 'To Study Aboriginal life' The West Australian, 11 Dec 1935 - http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article32976023 20

 

Beitz, Raibe and others in 1935

Beitz, Raibe and others in 1935


Nekes brought with him sophisticated photographic and phonographic equipment. The latter was provided by Dr. Marius Schneider from the sound archives of Berlin's ethnographic museum. The Völkerkundemuseum already held pre-war recordings from Beagle Bay, and Worms and Nekes sent at least nine wax cylinders with transcriptions and partial translations of songs.21 Nevermann claimed in 1968 that they produced 'hardly any photographs suitable for reproduction'22 but he must have overlooked the archives of the employers of these missionaries in Kew, Rossmoyne, Limburg and Rome.

 

Raible's new team of medical and linguistic experts was introduced to Chief Protector Neville, who was unimpressed with the proposed research. He noted in his file:

 

Dr Betz and his wife and another scientist called in … I advised the Bishop that it was necessary for the scientist to apply for permission to take photographs on reserves and also for permission to enter reserves in order that he might pursue his research work. 23

 

Worms and Nekes collaborated in a relationship where Worms was described as a ‘research assistant’. They explored linguistic differences between eleven language groups. While Worms travelled inland as far as the desert south of Gregory Salt Lake, Nekes confined himself to the coastal peoples. They also brought informants from different Kimberley regions to Beagle Bay to be interviewed at length about their language, in some cases for months. 24 They recorded native speakers and began to systematise and codify the language material and commenced work on a grammar and dictionary of Nyul-Nyul and related languages.25

Read more: 'Noted Anthropologist. Rev. Dr. Nekes in Melbourne' The West Australian, 4 Aug 1938 -
http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/42102247

 

In July 1938 a press report described Nekes working at Beagle Bay:

 

In a little stone house at Beagle Bay, with a creek running beside it and the sea only five miles away, he has been living and working with nine aborigines, studying their tongues. Every day he and the aborigines sat in a circle round the one big table in the house. Dr. Nekes asked them questions, and from their replies was able to compare their answers on the spot. The strangest feature of these linguistic knights of the round table was that no two of them spoke the same tongue. As the days became weeks and the weeks months, Dr. Nekes became the central figure in one of the oddest language experiments in scientific history. The aborigines began to understand every word that every other aborigine said. At first some of them had used what Dr. Nekes calls a kind of 'pidgin-black.' Now they were all coming to terms. At this stage, some of the brightest of them gave Dr. Nekes a shock. They began to use grammatical terms and hold almost scientific discussions on syntax. Some further months at the round table, and they were dealing with phonetic symbols, explaining fine points of pronunciation, elucidating the differences between dialects that were generally similar, and even giving Dr. Nekes a hand with his job of finding the best written representation of the different tongues.26

Read the whole article - http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article55940310.

 

Bishop Raible intended the language work primarily to support the missionary work in the Kimberley, and Nekes produced a Nyul-Nyul translation of the Pater Noster and Ave Maria.27

 

Publicity in Kew

Worms was posted to Kew in November 1937, and Nekes also went to Melbourne, where he underwent medical treatment in late 1938, with the intention of returning to the north.28 However during World War I Professor Nekes was placed under house arrest together with the other Melbourne Pallottines in the Kew home. He gained publicity for his linguistic work in the Kimberley, arguing that

 

the Australian aboriginal did not come from Africa. The aboriginal does not speak a 'tune' language like the African native, who can alter his meaning by the vocal pitch of a word.29

 

In an attempt to render his intricate linguistic work interesting for a broad audience, he gave some examples of speech conventions in the Kimberley languages, with a side-snipe to the Third Reich, mentioning that in Nyul-Nyul the word for 'respect' was the same as 'fear', an observation reported as "a sort of No-shirt Fascist outlook" among these language speakers.30 He illustrated the difficulty of translation of scriptures into indigenous languages by pointing out that some key terms, like 'hallowed' or 'revered' simply had no indigenous equivalent. To demonstrate, he rendered a literal re-translation of his Nyul-Nyul translation of the Lord’s Prayer:

 

Our Father on top sky.

Thy name be feared.

Thou art our boss.

Men-women will listen to Thee this place earth

as the good souls of men-women listen to Thee on top sky.

Give us tucker till this sun goes down.

We did wrong; make us good.

We have good hearts to them who did us wrong.

Watch us against bad place.

Thy hands be stretched out to guard us from bad.31

 

He seemed to be quite aware of the cultural limitations of such translations. Nekes attempted to demonstrate that language gives a deep insight into cultural conventions and world views. For example, 'beauty' and 'goodness' were the same word, whereas there was no word to express that a target, such as a kangaroo, had been 'missed'. The way to express a 'miss' was to say 'I hit the place of the kangaroo'. In April 1939 it already became evident that their large emerging dictionary manuscript, with an etymology of close to 7,000 words, would be difficult to place with a publisher in Australia. 32

Read the whole article - http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/55752114

 

Nekes published his only sole-authored work on Australian languages in 1938.33 He conducted his work in German, using German phonetics, and then translated it into English, and his work was not very well received by Australian scholars. A review of his 1938 article mentioned only that it was a ‘long piece’. His editor, anthropologist A.P. Elkin, corrected his spelling of Nyol-Nyol to Nyul-Nyul and specified that the piece was not about the languages of the South Kimberley, but specifically of the Broome-Beagle Bay districts of South Kimberley, making a cumbersome title for a book chapter. Nekes' rate of publication slowed, partly because the main audience was an English-speaking one, and also because Nekes and Worms were compiling a large and comprehensive work.

 

Nekes and Worms compiled a dictionary of 2,590 handwritten pages and began their magnus opus on Australian Languages. It was completed in January 1946, and Nekes corrected the proofs but was not to see the published results of his work. It took until 1953 for it to appear in microform, and until 2006 to be re-edited and published as a book (with CD-ROM). Worms used the work to advance a theory of settlement of waves of migration from the north, arguing that ‘The Australian languages show such strong fundamental similarities of certain structural elements and such a frequently occurring even if apparently small basic lexicon, that their internal unity is as certain as the unity of the Australian Aborigines as a people itself.”34

Read more: 'Obituary - Rev. H. Nekes' The Argus, 30 October 1948 - http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/22688448   35

 

 

Publications by Hermann Nekes   36

 

Nekes, Hermann and Wilhelm Planert, Lehrbuch der Jaunde-Sprache. Lehrbücher des Seminars für Orientalische Srachen zu Berlin, Vol. 26, Berlin: G. Reimer Verlag 1911.

Nekes, Hermann, 'Die Bedeutung des musikalischen Tones in den Bantusprachen', Anthropos, Vol. 6, 1911: 546-574 (or 446-474).

Nekes, Hermann, 'Die musikalischen Töne in der Duala-Sprache', Anthropos, Vol. 6, 1911:911-919.

Nekes, Hermann, 'Trommelsprache und Fernruf bei den Jaunde und Duala in Südkamerun', Mitteilungen des Seminar für orientalische Sprachen Vol. 15. No. 3. 1912.

Nekes, Hermann, Vier Jahre im Kameruner Hinterland, Kongregation der Pallottiner, 1912.

Nekes, Hermann, Die Sprache der Jaunde in Kamerun, Рипол Классик, 1913, also cited as Deutsche Kolonialsprachen Vol. 5, Berlin: D. Reimer, 1913, 111pp.

Nekes, Hermann, Über Tonakzente in afrikanischen Sprachen, Brussels: Alb. Dewit, 1913.

Nekes, Hermann, 'Über den Mittelton in Jaunde und Basa', Anthropos, Vol. 9, 1914:758-759.

Nekes, Hermann, ‘Die Pflege der Landessprache in Kirche und Schule’ Düsseldorfer Missionskursus, Aachen: Xaverius Verlag 1919, 12pp.

Nekes, Hermann, 'Die Tonsprachen, ihre Aufnahme und Darstellung', Düsseldorfer Missionskursus, 1919, published as special imprint, Aachen: Xaverius Verlag, 1920, 10pp.

M. Heepe (ed.) Jaunde-Wörterbuch (with a contribution from Hermann Nekes), Hamburg: Kommissionsverlag Friedrichsen, 1926.

Nekes, Hermann, 'Zur Entwicklung der Jaunde-Sprache unter dem Einfluss der Europäischen Kultur', Festschrift für Professor Meinhof, Hamburg, 1927: 301-314.

Nekes, Hermann, Zur Tonologie in den Bantu-Sprachen St. Gabriel-Mödling, 1928:80-92 (also cited as Festschrift für P.W. Schmidt, Wien: Anthropos-Verlag).

H. Nekes, ‘The Pronoun in the Nyol-nyol (Nyul-nyul) and related dialects of South Kimberley (Broome-Beagle Bay districts of South Kimberley)', in P. Elkin (ed.) Studies in Australian Linguistics, Oceania Monographs No. 3, Sydney, Australian National Research Council, 1938:139-163.

Nekes, H. and E. A. Worms, Australian Languages, Micro-Bibliotheca 10, Posieux: Anthropos-Institute, 1953, 1065pp (microfilm).

Nekes, H. und E. A. Worms, ‘Australian Languages’ Anthropos 48, 1953:956-970.

Nekes, H. and E. A. Worms, Australian Languages (ed. William McGregor) Trends in Linguistics Documentation Vol. 24 Mouton de Gruyter, 2006, with CD-ROM.

 

 

Nekes, Hermann, 'Vier Jahre im Kameruner Hinterland', Kleine Kamerun Bibliothek, Bändchen 1, Limburg 1906, 76pp.

Nekes, Hermann, 'Helden Kameruns', Sekretariat sozialer Studentenarbeit, Mönchen-Gladbach, 19pp. (n.d.)

Kathechismus der katholischen Religion für das apostolische Vicariat Kamerun (Jaunde), in Jaunde and German, Limburg: Verlag der Kongregation der Pallottiner, 1910 (translated by Hermann Nekes).

Jaunde-Gebetbüchlein nebst Sonntagsevangelien, in Jaunde and German, Limburg: Verlag der Kongregation der Pallottiner, 1910 (translated by Hermann Nekes).

Kalara Ndzaman, Handbuch der deutschen Sprache von H. Skolaster, für Jaunde bearbeitet, Limburg: Verlag der Kongregation der Pallottiner, 1910 (translated by Hermann Nekes).

Fibel für die Schulen in Jaunde. Limburg: Verlag der Kongregation der Pallottiner, 1910, 48pp (translated by Hermann Nekes).

Minlan mi Bibel, Biblische Geschichte von Schuster May ins Jaunde übersetzt. Limburg: Verlag der Kongregation der Pallottiner, 1911 (translated by Hermann Nekes).

Nekes, Hermann, 'Jaunde und seine Bewohner' Koloniale Rundschau, Nr. 8 1912.

Nekes, Hermann, 'Totemistische und animistische Anschauungen der Jaunde in ihren Kultfeiern und Geheimbünden', Koloniale Rundschau, Nr. 3/4, 1913.

Nekes, Hermann, 'Die wirtschaftlichen Leistungen der katholischen Mission in Nord-Kamerun und Togo' Koloniale Rundschau, Nr. 2, 1914.

Nekes, Hermann, 'Längere biographische Skizze über Bischof Heinrich Vieter', Stern von Afrika, April 1915, 32pp.

 

 

 (Newspaper articles found in Trove reproduced courtesy of the National Library of Australia)

 

 

1 Ernst Damman, short biography of Pater Nekes for the 2nd edition of the Lexikon für Afrikanistik, edited by H. Jungraithmayr, sent to Limburg in January 1991. In Nekes, Hermann, P1-16 ZAPP.

2 Nekes, Hermann, P1-16 ZAPP.

3 Ernst Damman, short biography of Pater Nekes for the 2nd edition of the Lexikon für Afrikanistik, edited by H. Jungraithmayr, based on information by H. Mertens in Limburg and sent to Limburg in January 1991. In Nekes, Hermann, P1-16 ZAPP.

4 Nekes, Hermann, P1-16 ZAPP.

5 Ernst Damman, short biography of Pater Nekes for the 2nd edition of the Lexikon für Afrikanistik, edited by H. Jungraithmayr, based on information by H. Mertens in Limburg and sent to Limburg in January 1991. In Nekes, Hermann, P1-16 ZAPP.

6 Ernst Damman, short biography of Pater Nekes for the 2nd edition of the Lexikon für Afrikanistik, edited by H. Jungraithmayr, based on information by H. Mertens in Limburg and sent to Limburg in January 1991. In Nekes, Hermann, P1-16 ZAPP.

7 Nekes, Hermann, P1-16 ZAPP.

8 Nekes, Hermann, P1-16 ZAPP.

9 Nekes, Hermann, "Zur Entwicklung der Jaunde-Sprache unter dem Einfluss der Europäischen Kultur" Festschrift für Professor Meinhof 1927, Hamburg, 1927: 301-314.

10 Antonia Leugers Eine geistliche Unternehmensgeschichte – Die Limburger Pallottiner-Provinz 1892-1932, St. Ottilien EOS Verlag 2004:113.

11 Antweiler, A. ‘Nachruf – P Ernst Adolf Worms SAC’, Zeitschrift für Missionswissenschaft und Religionswissenschaft, Vol. 47 No. 4, 1963:287-288; Bernd Worms to Br. Josef Schüngel SAC in Limburg, 17 July 1988, in Worms, Ernst, P (1891 -1963) P.1-27, ZAPP; Fr. Ludwig Münz, obituary in Worms, Ernst, P (1891 -1963) P.1-27, ZAPP.

12 'Professor für Missionskunde, Missionslehre, vergleichende Religionskunde, Völkerkunde und Sprachwissenschaft an der phil.-theol. Hochschule der Pallottiner', from the ethnographic exhibition in the Limburg Monastery, 2012.

13 Nekes, Hermann, 'Zur Entwicklung der Jaunde-Sprache unter dem Einfluss der Europäischen Kultur' Festschrift für Professor Meinhof 1927, Hamburg, 1927: 301-314.

14 Bishofs in Milwaukee to Nekes, 28 November 1927 in Nekes, Hermann, P1-16 ZAPP.

15 Undated note in Worms Nachlass, ZAPP.

16 Joseph Bischofs SAC, The Pious Society of Missions, Milwaukee (Wisconsin) to Pater Nekes, 28th November 1927 in Nekes, Hermann, P1-16 ZAPP.

17 P Ernst Worms SAC to P Nekes, Broome 12 May 1933 in Nekes, Hermann, P1-16 ZAPP.

18Ernst Worms SAC to P Nekes, Broome 12 May 1933 in Nekes, Hermann, P1-16 ZAPP.

19 Pallottine Necrology, MS of the Pallottine Centre, Rossmoyne.

20 'To Study Aboriginal life', The West Australian, 11 December 1935: 17. Web. 30 Sep 2013 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article32976023.

21 Catherine J. Ellis, Report to AIATSIS on research in Germany during study leave 1990, AIATSIS MS.

22 Nevermann, Hans, Ernest A. Worms, Helmut Petri, Die Religionen der Südsee und Australiens, Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1968:129.

23 File note by CPA 19 December 1935 in Establishment of a mission hospital for the treatment of natives and half-castes at Rockhole Station – Proposal by the Rev. Otto Raible SROWA 1939/0010.

24 Alfons Bleischwitz ‘Geschichte der australischen Mission’ in Bleischwitz, Alfons [P] P1 Nr 13 ZAPP.

25 'Noted Anthropologist', The West Australian, 4 August 1938: 5. Web. 12 May 2011.

26 'Aborigine Is Better Grammarian', The Mail (Adelaide), 30 July 1938: 8. Web. 30 Sep 2013 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article55940310.

27 Kimberleys language material by H. Nekes (1875-1948), Daro, Nol Nol etc. AIATSIS MS 35.

28 'Noted Anthropologist', The West Australian, 4 August 1938: 5. Web. 12 May 2011 - http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/42102247

29 'Aborigines Do Tricks With Tongues', The Mail (Adelaide), 8 April 1939: 5. Web. 11 May 2011 - http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/55752114

30 'Aborigines Do Tricks With Tongues', The Mail (Adelaide), 8 April 1939: 5. Web. 11 May 2011.

31 'Aborigines Do Tricks With Tongues', The Mail (Adelaide), 8 April 1939: 5. Web. 11 May 2011.

32 'Aborigines Do Tricks With Tongues', The Mail (Adelaide), 8 April 1939: 5. Web. 11 May 2011.

33 H. Nekes, ‘The Pronoun in the Nyol-nyol (Nyul-nyul) and related dialects of South Kimberley’ (Broome-Beagle Bay districts of South Kimberley), in P. Elkin (ed.) Studies in Australian Linguistics, Oceania Monographs No. 3, Sydney: Australian National Research Council, 1938.

34 Nekes, H. und E. A. Worms, ‘Australian Languages’, Anthropos 48, 1953:956-970.

35 'Obituary' The Argus, 30 October 1948: 5. Web. 11 May 2011 - http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/22688448

36 Compiled from Google Scholar, Ernst Damman's short biography of Pater Nekes based on information by H. Mertens in Limburg, and the ethnographic exhibition in the Limburg monastery, 2012, which claims that Nekes published close to 100 items

37 Damman explains that Koloniale Rundschau was a journal published by Reimer Verlag in Berlin, aimed at an informed but not academic readership. He compiled this list, which is incomplete, from the extant records, of which some were lost during the Third Reich. In Nekes, Hermann, P1-16 ZAPP.