Papers of Professor Wilfred Howell Whiteley

Scope and Content

The collection comprises Wilfred Howell Whiteley's personal correspondence (1956-1972); language material on over 30 Bantu languages collected by Whiteley during his lifetime and socio-linguistic material. Also included is a major section on Swahili (including papers on the socio-political issues raised over the adoption of Swahili as a national language).

Administrative / Biographical History

Wilfred Howell Whiteley was born in Liverpool, on 19 November 1924. He was educated at King Edward's High School, Birmingham, with the last two years at Lancaster Grammar School. His education was interrupted by a period of National Service, which took him to East Africa for a time. This lasted until the end of the War, when he became a student at the London School of Economics, graduating in Anthropology in 1949. He was appointed as Research Assistant at the International African Institute, but after a short time accepted the post of Government Anthropologist, Tanganyika. His duties took him mainly to the Southern province, where he became interested in the local Bantu languages. During this period, he was also in touch with the East African Institute of Social Research at Makerere, Uganda. When his contract as Government Anthropologist ended in 1952, he was appointed Research Fellow of the Institute, and continued in this post until 1958.

During his time in East Africa, Whiteley concentrated on linguistic research. After discussing his plans with Malcolm Guthrie at the School of Oriental and African Studies, he focused on the languages to the east of Lake Victoria in both Tanganyika and Kenya. He collected a great deal of material, which he used in his thesis, awarded by the University of London in 1955. He had also become competent in Swahili, and was asked to become the Secretary of the East African Swahili Committee, formed in 1930 at Kampala to co-ordinate work on Swahili throughout then British East Africa. Under his leadership, this committee played an important role in raising the status of Swahili at a time when many East African territories were gaining independence.

In 1959, the University of London established the Readership in Bantu Languages at the School of Oriental and African Studies. Whiteley was appointed as its first incumbent, focusing on teaching and research into Swahili. He also began his investigations into the Yao language, and was granted overseas research leave 1961-1962, which was spent partly in Nyasaland working on Yao, and partly in Kenya working on Kamba. From 1963 to May 1964, he was seconded to the University of Wisconsin as Visiting Professor. At this time, plans were finalised to establish a Department of African Languages and Linguistics at University College, Dar es Salaam, and Whiteley was seconded as Professor and Head of the Department, 1964-1967. He also became Director of the Institute of Swahili Research, which was established on his recommendation to take over the functions of the East Africa Swahili Committee. In 1965, the University of London conferred the title of Professor of Bantu Languages on him, and in 1967 he returned to SOAS. In 1968, he succeeded Malcolm Guthrie as Head of the Department of Africa. However, he was prevented from taking up the post until October 1969, because of his involvement in the Survey of Language Use and Language Planning in East Africa, under the auspices of the Ford Foundation. From 1968-1969, he was Director of the team dealing with the Kenya section of the survey. When Guthrie retired in 1970, Whiteley also succeeded him to the Chair of Bantu Languages.

Whiteley's main interest and field of work was socio-linguistics, but he also made significant contributions to the study of Swahili syntax. He died suddenly on 16 April 1972 at the age of 47, whilst on a lecture tour to Indiana University.

Around fifty of Whiteley's works have been published, including: Studies in Iraqw - an Introduction , (Kampala, 1953); A Practical Introduction to Kamba , (OUP, 1962); A Study of Yao Sentences , (Clarendon Press, 1965); Some Problems of Transitivity in Swahili , (SOAS, 1968). Articles include: 'Some problems in the syntax of a Bantu languages in East Africa', in Lingua , IX, 2, (1970); 'Notes on the syntax of the passive in Swahili', in African Language Studies , X, (1970); 'Focus and entailment, further problems of transitivity in Swahili', in African Language Review , VIII, (1969).

(Introduction based on the obituary written by Malcolm Guthrie in Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies , Vol. XXXVI, 1973).


The collection has been arranged into seven main sections: personal material; socio-linguistic material; Swahili material; language material (listed alphabetically under the language name); general language material; art and literature, and miscellaneous material. Within each section, material is arranged in chronological order.

Access Information


Acquisition Information

Transferred from Africa Department, SOAS, 1983.

Other Finding Aids

Unpublished handlist

Related Material

Related Collections at SOAS: Guthrie, Malcolm [ref. PP MS 27].