Clement Martyn Doke

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Clement Martyn Doke : biography

16 May 1893 – 24 February 1980

Clement Martyn Doke (16 May 1893 in Bristol, United Kingdom – 24 February 1980 in East London, South Africa) was a South African linguist working mainly on African languages. Realizing that the grammatical structures of Bantu languages are quite different from those of European languages, he was one of the first African linguists of his time to abandon the Euro-centric approach to language description for a more locally grounded one. A most prolific writer, he published a string of grammars, several dictionaries, comparative work, and a history of Bantu linguistics.

The Lamba language

At first, Clement Doke was frustrated by his inability to communicate with the Lamba. The only written material available at the time was a translation of Jonah and a collection of 47 hymns. Soon he mastered the language and published his first book Ifintu Fyakwe Lesa (The Things of God, a Primer of Scripture Knowledge) in 1917. He enrolled in Johannesburg as the extension of Transvaal University College for an MA degree. His thesis was published as The Grammar of the Lamba language. The book is couched in traditional grammatical terms as Doke had not yet established his innovative method of analysis and description for the Bantu languages. His later Textbook of Lamba Grammar is far superior in this respect.

Clement Doke was also interested in ethnology. In 1931 he compiled The Lambas of Northern Rhodesia, which remains one of the outstanding ethnographic descriptions of the peoples of Central Africa. For Doke, literacy was part of the evangelisation since people had to able to read to appreciate the message of the Bible, but it was only after his retirement that he completed the translation of the Bible into Lamba. It was published under the title of Amasiwi AwaLesa (The Words of God) in 1959.

University of the Witwatersrand

In 1919 Doke married Hilda Lehmann, who accompanied him back to Lambaland. They both contracted malaria during their work and she was forbidden to return to Lambaland. Clement Doke also realised that his field work couldn’t continue much longer and left in 1921. He was recruited by the newly-founded University of the Witwatersrand. In order to secure a qualification as a lecturer, the family moved to England, where he registered at the School of Oriental and African Studies. His major languages were Lamba and Luba, but as no suitable examiner was available, he eventually had to change his language to Zulu.

Doke took up his appointment in the new Department of Bantu Studies at the University of Witwatersrand in 1923. In 1925 he received his D. Litt. for his doctoral thesis The Phonetics of the Zulu Language and was promoted to Senior Lecturer. In 1931 he was appointed to the Chair of Bantu Studies and thus headed the Department of Bantu Studies. The Department acted as a catalyst for the admission of Africans to the University: as early as 1925 a limited number were admitted to the vacation course in African Studies. Doke supported the appointment of Benedict Wallet Vilakazi as member of the staff, as he believed a native speaker was essential for acquiring a language. This provoked a storm of criticism and controversy from the public. They both collaborated on the Zulu-English Dictionary, first published in 1948. It is still one of the best examples of lexicography for any of the Bantu languages.

At the request of the government of Southern Rhodesia, Doke investigated the range of dialect diversity among the languages of the country and made recommendations for Unified Shona. This formed the basis for Standard Shona. He devised a unified orthography based on the Zezuru, Karanga and Manyika dialects. However, Doke’s orthography was never fully accepted and the South African government introduced an alternative, leaving Shona with two competing orthographies between 1935 and 1955.

During his tenure Doke developed and promoted a method of linguistic analysis and description of the Bantu languages that was based upon the structure of these languages. The "Dokean model" continues to be one of the dominant models of linguistic description in Southern and Central Africa. His classification of the Bantu languages was for many years the dominant view of the interrelations among the African languages. He was also an early describer of Khoisan and Bantu click consonants, devising phonetic symbols for a number of them.