Wilhelm Bleek

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Wilhelm Heinrich Immanuel Bleek (March 8, 1827 – August 17, 1875) was a German linguist. His work included A Comparative Grammar of South African Languages and his great project jointly executed with Lucy Lloyd: The Bleek and Lloyd Archive of ǀxam and !kun texts.



Wilhelm Heinrich Immanuel Bleek was born in Berlin on 8 March 1827. He was the eldest son of Friedrich Bleek, Professor of Theology at Berlin University and then at the University of Bonn, and Augusta Charlotte Marianne Henriette Sethe. He graduated from the University of Bonn in 1851 with a doctorate in linguistics, after a period in Berlin where he went to study Hebrew and where he first became interested in African languages. Bleek's thesis featured an attempt to link North African and Khoikhoi (or what were then called Hottentot) languages – the thinking at the time being that all African languages were connected. After graduating in Bonn, Bleek returned to Berlin and worked with a zoologist, Dr Wilhelm K H Peters, editing vocabularies of East African languages. His interest in African languages was further developed during 1852 and 1853 by learning Egyptian from Professor Karl Richard Lepsius, whom he met in Berlin in 1852.

Bleek was appointed official linguist to Dr William Balfour Baikie's Niger Tshadda Expedition in 1854. Ill-health (a tropical fever) forced his return to England where he met George Grey and John William Colenso, the Anglican Bishop of Natal, who invited Bleek to join him in Natal in 1855 to help compile a Zulu grammar. After completing Colenso's project, Bleek travelled to Cape Town in 1856 to become Sir George Grey's official interpreter as well as to catalogue his private library. Grey had philological interests and was Bleek's patron during his time as Governor of the Cape. The two had a good professional and personal relationship based on an admiration that appears to have been mutual. Bleek was widely respected as a philologist, particularly in the Cape. While working for Grey he continued with his philological research and contributed to various publications during the late 1850s. Bleek requested examples of African literature from missionaries and travellers, such as the Revd W Kronlein who provided Bleek with Namaqua texts in 1861.

In 1859 Bleek briefly returned to Europe in an effort to improve his poor health but returned to the Cape and his research soon after. In 1861 Bleek met his future wife, Jemima Lloyd, at the boarding house where he lived in Cape Town (run by a Mrs Roesch), while she was waiting for a passage to England, and they developed a relationship through correspondence. She returned to Cape Town from England the following year.

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