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Arthur Capell (1902–1986)

by Peter J. F. Newton

This article was published:

Arthur Capell (1902-1986), linguist, anthropologist, ethnographer and Anglican clergyman, was born on 28 March 1902 at Newtown, Sydney, only child of English-born parents Henry Capell, commercial traveller, and his wife Sarah Ann, née Scott. Educated at North Sydney Boys’ High School, Sydney Teachers’ College (Dip.Mod.Lang., 1922) and the University of Sydney (BA, 1922; MA, 1931), he gained first-class honours in Latin and Greek and the university medal in classics. During the 1920s he taught at Canterbury Boys’ Intermediate High and Tamworth High schools and collaborated on the preparation of a Latin primer. Made a deacon in the Church of England on 21 December 1925, and ordained priest on 21 December 1926, he worked in the Newcastle diocese as curate (1926-28) of St Peter’s Church, Hamilton, and priest in charge (1928-29) of All Saints Church, Belmont.

As an undergraduate Capell corresponded with the English schoolmaster-linguist Sidney Ray, who used some of Capell’s research notes for his book A Comparative Study of the Melanesian Island Languages (1926). Before the end of the decade Capell’s papers were accepted for publication by the Journal of the Polynesian Society. His early work was based on material gleaned from private correspondence and missionary and other archival documents. The works of R. H. Codrington, Renward Brandstetter and Otto Dempwolff inspired him to formulate his own theories on the genetic relationships between regional languages, the affinity between language and population movements, and suitable methods of modelling earlier language forms.

While teaching (1929-32) at Broughton School for Boys in Newcastle, Capell was introduced to Adolphus Peter Elkin. In the following year, after a brief period as curate of Taree, Capell was appointed as curate (1932-35) at St James Church, Morpeth, where Elkin was rector. With his encouragement Capell studied at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London (Ph.D., 1938), writing a thesis, `The Linguistic Position of South-Eastern Papua’.

On his return to Australia in 1938, Capell, at Elkin’s behest, investigated the little-studied languages of the Kimberley region of northwestern Australia. Helped by Howard Coate, a lay missionary with a knowledge of some of the languages, he interviewed many Aboriginal informants. A similar survey of Arnhem Land languages and dialects over the next few years was interrupted by his work on A New Fijian Dictionary (1941). In 1942 he returned to Sydney as curate in charge of St Paul’s Church, Canterbury.

Capell was employed as a lecturer (1944-47) and a reader in Oceanic languages (1948-67) in Elkin’s department of anthropology at the University of Sydney. From the 1950s, in collaboration with Professor George Shipp, he ran a separate linguistics course, for which he wrote A Note Book of General Linguistics (1963). Throughout his career he engaged in field work in Melanesia and Australia. He wrote pioneering linguistic surveys of Papua, New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Fiji, the New Hebrides and Timor, and published A Linguistic Survey of the South Western Pacific (1954) for the South Pacific Commission. In A New Approach to Australian Linguistics (1956) he suggested that Australian Aboriginal languages had enough similar elements to suggest that most of them came from a common stock. Among some one hundred scholarly publications, which included contributions to social anthropology, his major works comprised a series on Austronesian languages, grammars of several Oceanic and Australian languages, and a major reformulation of his ideas about the structure and development of Australian Aboriginal languages, which was published in Australian Linguistic Studies (1979).

A shy person who never married, Capell seemed aloof to some students but was generous to serious linguistics scholars. He had a quiet sense of humour (being especially adept at the art of punning) and in later life enjoyed science fiction. He maintained an interest in Esperanto. In his priestly role he tried to care for youngsters in trouble. A prolific writer for church and missions publications, he studied ecumenical affairs, and the revolutionary theology movements in South and Central America. He was appointed honorary canon of the Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul, Dogura, Papua, in 1956.

Capell was president (1948-50) and vice-president (1950-52, 1958-59) of the Anthropological Society of New South Wales, a foundation member (1961-68) of the council of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies and a patron of the Aboriginal Australian Fellowship. He was assistant editor (1945-85) of Oceania and a member (1977-83) of the editorial board of La Monda Lingvo-Problemo. Elected a fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities in 1979, he was awarded an honorary D.Litt. by the University of Sydney in 1981. He died on 10 August 1986 at Gordon and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • S. A. Wurm and D. C. Laycock (eds), Pacific Linguistic Studies in Honour of Arthur Capell (1970)
  • P. J. F. Newton, `Capell on Australia’, in G. McCall (ed), Anthropology in Australia (1982)
  • W. F. Connell et al, Australia’s First, vol 2 (1995)
  • Australian Academy of Humanities, Proceedings, vol 13, 1984-86, p 149
  • Journal of the Oriental Society of Australia, vol 17, 1985, p 5
  • Australian Aboriginal Studies, no 1, 1987, p 98
  • Oceania, vol 57, no 4, 1987, p 241
  • P. J. F. Newton, Movements and Structures (BA Hons thesis, Macquarie University, 1979)
  • A. Capell papers and P. Money papers (National Library of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Peter J. F. Newton, 'Capell, Arthur (1902–1986)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 28 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


28 March, 1902
Newtown, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


10 August, 1986 (aged 84)
Gordon, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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