Short Portrait: Oswin Köhler

Oswin Köhler
Oswin Köhler

Oswin Köhler was born in Tiefthal/Thuringia near Erfurt in 1911. He finished school in 1929. Köhler studied Anthropology, Phonetics and African Studies in Berlin between 1943 and 1948. He graduated with a Ph D thesis on Nilotic languages. Diedrich Westermann was his doctoral advisor.

Köhler wrote his habilitation thesis about the Gur languages at the Humboldt-University Berlin in 1952. After resettling in Western germany Köhler completed his habilitation once again at the University of Cologne two years later. Eventually he began lecturing on African Cultures and Languages at the Institute for African Studies.

Moreover, Köhler was announced government ethnologist in Western Africa in 1955 and conducted researches on the Khoisan languages and cultures throughout the following years.

In 1960 Köhler was appointed associate professor, two years later he took up the first full professorship of African Studies at the University of Cologne. The institute, which he chaired until his retirement in 1977, had a broad linguistic, historic and anthropological approach. Wilhelm Möhlig, Bernd Heine and Christoph Winter were among his students.

Köhlers main fields of interest included Ethnolinguistics (mainly: Swahili, Ewe, Herero) as well as the Geography and History of African Languages and the History of Linguistics. Moreover, he was member of the expert body on African Studies of the German Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, DFG) for many years.

Oswin Köhler died in Cologne in 1996.

(Text written by Vincenz Kokot in June 2012, based on an article in Encyclopedia Britannica; photo source:

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