Classic DACB Collection

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Christaller, Johannes Gottlieb (A)

Basel Mission

Johann Christaller

Johann Gottlieb Christaller (November 19, 1827-December 16, 1895) was a German missionary and philologist with the Basel Mission who made Twi the most important African literary language in what is now Ghana. With the help of two African colleagues, he translated the Bible into Twi.

He was born in the small town of Winnenden, near Stuttgart, in Germany in 1827. His father was a tailor of modest means who was interested in books and bought over 2,000 of them for his library. As a boy Christaller spent most of his time after school reading his father’s books and developing the philological and linguistic skills which were to make his one of the leading linguists of the century. He decided at an early age to become a missionary, and entered the Basel Mission Training School in Basel, Switzerland, after leaving school. He took the four-year course for missionaries, and because of his linguistic skills - he knew Greek, Latin, Hebrew, German and English - was sent to the Gold Coast in 1853 by the Basel Mission Home Board solely to work on the Twi language. Before leaving Basel, he had already helped to edit a Twi grammar.

Christaller was to remain on the Gold Coast from 1853 to 1868, except when ill health obliged him to spend the years from 1858 to 1862 back in Basel. He was stationed first in Akuropon, Akuapem, 32 miles (51 km) north of Accra, where he worked from 1853-58; then at Aburi, 20 miles (32 km) north of Accra, from 1862-65; then at Kyebi in Akyem Abuakwa, 50 miles (80 km) north of Accra, from 1865-67; and again at Akuropon from 1867-68.

In confronting the task before him, Christaller faced a number of problems. For example. Twi was variously called Odschi, Oji, and Tshi, as well as Twi. Another Basel missionary, H. N. Riis, who had arrived on the Gold Coast in 1845, had already done some work on the language, and Christaller had his books - Elemente des Akwapim Dialects de Odschi Sprache (1853), and Grammatical Outline and Vocabulary of the Oji Language with Special Reference to the Akuapem Dialect, Together with a Collection of Proverbs by the Natives (1854) - to guide him.

The key decision taken by Christaller was the choice of a common dialect to serve as a “book language” for Twi-speaking peoples. Years later, in his Grammar of the Asante and Fante Language Called Tschi (1875), Christaller commented on the need for choosing one of the Gold Coast dialects for this purpose in the following terms: “The Akan and Fante dialects do not differ so much as ancient Greek dialects or as the different English and German dialects; neither are they spoken by as many individuals. And when more than forty millions of Germans enjoy a common book-language, half a million Fantes may more easily be brought to a common medium of communication by writing.”

The choice of the Akuapem dialect of Twi as a literary medium was made on the following grounds. The headquarters of the Basel Mission was in Akuropon, the capital of the Akuapem state, and the Twi spoken there had been reduced to writing by 1853. Even though Christaller himself had worked in the neighboring state of Akyem Abuakwa, and had learned to speak the Akyem dialect, which is the nearest to the Asante dialect, he nevertheless felt that the Akuapem dialect was the best suited to literary work.

Again, writing in 1875, Christaller observed “It (Akuapem) is an Akan dialect influenced by Fante, steering in the middle course between other Akan dialects and Fante in sounds, forms and expressions; it admits peculiarities of both branches as far as they do no contradict each other, and is, therefore, best capable of being enriched from both sides.” Christaller’s colleague, David Asante (q.v.), (1834-1892), who spoke both the Akuapem and Akyem dialects, in 1874 gave it as his judgement that the choice was a correct one, commenting that: “Akuapem easily admits of enrichment and admixture from Akyem and even Fante; and Fante also admits and receives such foreign elements; but if the same should be done in the Akyem dialect, it would not sound well.”

Christaller had learned Twi rapidly, and within a year of his arrival had produced Old Testament Bible stories in Twi. Between 1859 and 1866 he had produced Twi translations of the following, comprising in aggregate of the New Testament: Acts of the Apostles (1859), the Four Gospels (1864), and the following Epistles: - Letter to the Romans, Peter I and II, James and Jude, JohnI, II and III, Revelations (1861); Corinthians I and II, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians I and II (1862); Timothy I and II, Titus, Philemon, and Hebrews (1863). Most of these works were done in Basel, between 1858-62. Christaller also prepared the Twi New Testament for the press in Basel.

He married a fellow missionary named Emilie (her surname is not given) who was a devoted wife, and whose death at Kyebi in Akyem Abuakwa on August 13, 1866, affected him deeply. He later described her last days in a moving latter to the committee of the Basel Mission, written from Akuropon. She was buried in Jyebi, after which Christaller moved to Akuropon the following year, leaving the country for good in 1868.

In Akuropon, Christaller, with David Asante and Theophilus Opoku (q.v.), had worked hard on a Twi translation of the whole Bible, which was published in Basel in 1871. The second edition of the Twi Bible was to be published by the British and Foreign Bible Society in 1897-1900.

Apart from his translations, Christaller is best known for two monumental works. The first is A Grammar of the Asante and Fante Language Called Tshi (Twi, Chee) Based on the Akuapem Dialect with Reference to Other (Akan and Fante) Dialects (1875). This scholarly work is still the best Twi grammar, even though the orthography has changed over the years. The author employed his knowledge of philology, phonetics, and linguistics to solve problems of grammar, and showed a wide knowledge of African languages. He had collected the material on the Gold Coast, and after his return to Basel also constantly sought the advice of David Asante and other African scholars. The second work is his Dictionary of the Asante and Fante Language Called Twi (1881), also written in Basel. It is the standard Twi dictionary, and was revised in 1933. By the mid-1970s it had not yet been superseded, even though Twi orthography had changed considerably.

The publication of Christaller’s 1881 dictionary had been preceded by the publication in 1874 of his English-Tshi-Akra Dictionary. In 1879 Christaller published A Collection of 3,600 Tshi Proverbs, to which constant reference was made in his dictionary.

It is significant that the British authorities of the day on the Gold Coast did not realize how much work had been done in Twi. Christaller pointed out in his Grammar (1875), for example, that if the British had known of the existence of written Twi, Sir Garnet Wolsely’s letter to the Asantehene proposing lasting peace, intercepted by Amankwa Tia (q.v.) could have been sent in Twi, and the British invasion of Asante in the Sagrenti war of 1873-74 might have been averted.

During his retirement in Basel, Christaller became editor of a journal entitled The Christian Messenger. The aim of the journal was to encourage African scholars to write in Twi and Ga (This publication is not to be confused with The Christian Messenger and Examiner, founded in Cape Coast in 1859 by Revs. T. B. Freeman and H. Wharton, and which also urged the use of African languages and the translation of classic and foreign literatures into African tongues.) The first issue was dated March 1, 1883. Though the journal dealt mainly with Christian activities on the Gold Coast, it gave scholars and contributors an opportunity to describe the country as it then was, and bore testimony as to how extensively some of them had travelled. The Rev. H. L. Rottman, in a letter to the editor from Christiansborg dated October 13, 1882, stated that the primary aim of the journal was to encourage people who were not proficient in English to write in Twi or Ga. Christaller himself points to the poor standard of English of the German missionaries, and urges then to submit their articles to good English scholars before submitting them to the editor, since he could not claim an excellent knowledge of English. The Christian Messenger (still being published in the mid-1970s by the Presbyterian Church) is a source book for the social and military historian which has been insufficiently used.

Christaller did not think much of the Mfantsi Grammar, written by D. L. Carr and J. P. Brown (q.v.), published in Cape Coast in 1868. He criticizes the book for imitating the principles of English orthography, which he considered unsuitable for Akan dialects. Though J. P. Brown tried in 1913 to produce a better second edition, by the mid-1970s no Fante grammar comparable to Christaller had not yet been published.

Christaller won fame as a scholar both at home and in several countries in Europe. In 1876 and 1882 he was awarded the Volney Prize by the Insitut de France. He died in Stuttgart in 1893.

L. H. Ofosu-Appiah


David Asante (translator), Wiase abasem mu nsemma-nsemma wo Twi-kasa mu (“Stories from general history translated from German into Twi”), 2nd revised and augmented edition edited by J. G. Christaller, Basel, 1893; J. G. Christaller (translator [with David Asante and Theophilus Opoku]), Anyamesem anase Kyerew Kronkron Apam-dedaw ne Apam-foforo nsem wo Twi kasa mu (“The Holy Bible translated from the original tongues into the Twi language”), Basel, 1871, (with C. W. Locher and J. Zimmerman) A Dictionary, English, Tshi (Asante), Akra; Tshi (Chwee) Comprising as Dialects: Akan and Fante; Accra connected with Adangme; Gold Coast, West Africa, Basel, 1874, A Grammar of the Asante and Fantu Language Called Tschi (Chwee, Twi) Based on the Akuapem Dicalect, With Reference to Other (Akan and Fante) Dialects, Basel, 1875 Co, Twi mmebusem mpensa-ahansia mmoaano. A collection of 3,600 Tshi Proverbs In Use Among the Negroes of the Gold ast Spaeking the Asante and Fante Language, Collected, Together with their Variations, and Alphabetically Arranged, Basel, 1879, A Dictionary of the Asnte and Fante Language Called Tschi (Chwee, Twi) With a Grammatical Introduction and appendices on the Geography fo the Gold Coast and Other Sibjects, Basel, 1881, 2nd rev. ed., edited by J. Schweizer, published as A Dictionary fo the Asante and Fante Languages Called Tshi (Twi), Basel, 1893, Die Sprechen Afrikas, Stuttgart, 1892; H. W. Debrunner, A History of Christianity in Ghana, Accra, 1967; C. C.Reindorf, History of the Gold Coast and Asante, Basel, 1895, 2nd edition, Accra, 1966; Wilhelm Schlatter, Geschichte der Basler Mission, 1815-1915, Basel, 1916; Noel Smith, The Presbyterian Church of Ghana 1835-1960, Accra, 1966. See also Missionar J.G. Christaller, Stuttgart and Basel, 1929; The Christian Messenger, Basel, 1883-94. For a full bibliography of Christaller’s published work, see A Bibliography and Vocabulary of the Akan (Twi-Fante) Language of Ghana, compiled by Dennis M. Warren, Bloomington, Indiana, 1976.

This article was reprinted from The Encyclopaedia Africana Dictionary of African Biography (in 20 Volumes). Volume One Ethiopia-Ghana, ©1997 by L. H. Ofosu-Appiah, editor-in-chief, Reference Publications Inc., New York, NY. All rights reserved.