- In Memoriam, John (Hans) Z’graggen, 1932–2013
John (Hans) Z’graggen died on Monday, May 20, 2013 in Menzingen, Switzerland, aged 80. He is best known for his pioneering surveys and classification of the languages of Madang Province, Papua New Guinea, including the identification and internal classification of what is now called the Madang subgroup of the Trans-New Guinea family. His four volumes of wordlists and grammatical notes on 98 languages of this subgroup, and his tapes and unpublished materials, remain a priceless source for linguists working in Madang Province, where many of these languages are rapidly being replaced by New Guinea Pidgin (Tok Pisin). He also contributed to the documentation of languages of East Sepik, Manus, and Gulf Provinces.1
Z’graggen’s achievements in Papuan linguistics deserve great respect. It is easy to think of Madang Province as just a small part of New Guinea and to point to flaws in his classification. We need to bear in mind that the region consisting of Madang and the adjacent Sepik provinces is by some distance the most diverse linguistic area of its size in the world. Madang Province alone contains about 170 languages (all but 16 of them Papuan, that is, non-Austronesian) in an area less than a third the size of Ireland. Even more striking is that Madang languages fall into five families that are not demonstrably related (Austronesian, Trans-New Guinea, Torricelli, Lower Sepik-Ramu, and Upper Yuat). The linguistic diversity of the whole of Europe pales in comparison. It is no mean feat to do fieldwork on and gather a substantial body of data on almost all of these languages and to arrive at a tentative classification. The scale of this achievement can be compared in some respects with Greenberg’s classification of the languages of Africa.
Z’graggen was also deeply interested in folklore, and published several volumes about the myths and legends and the cosmogony of Madang peoples. He was an assiduous photographer who compiled a sizable collection of photos of ethnographic interest.
Hans Anton Z’graggen (known as “John” to anglophone and New Guinea friends) was born in Schattdorf in the Canton of Uri, Switzerland on June 24, 1932, into a family of devout Catholic farmers and officials in local government. John’s teacher at the local school encouraged his parents to send the boy to the Society of the Divine Word’s (SVD) Marienburg Secondary School at Rheineck in the Canton of St. Gallen. He came speaking a distinctive Urner dialect and recalled that boys in the school poked fun at him for this. [End Page 170]
Among the teachers and guests at Marienburg were SVD missionaries, including Wilhelm Schmidt, the founder of the Anthropos Institute, the scientific branch of SVD. A former classmate of John still remembers the latter’s intention to become a missionary in remote New Guinea.2 John continued his education at the senior high school at Einsiedeln, run by the Benedictine Monastery. In 1955, he became a novice in the SVD missionary order at St. Gabriel College at Mödling, near Vienna, where he studied philosophy, theology, and anthropology. SVD missionary scholars from the German-speaking countries, guided by Wilhelm Schmidt, had an established tradition of research on vernacular cultures and languages of the northern half of Papua New Guinea. Joseph Schmidt, Josef Schebesta, Franz J. Kirschbaum, Aloys Kasprus, and Georg Höltker were among those SVD priests who published in this field in the decades before World War II.
After studies in linguistics and anthropology under Prof. Paul Schebesta, Z’graggen graduated in 1961 with a Diploma in Ethnology, and was ordained as a priest in Marienburg, Rheineck. The Superior General of the order, Fr. Johannes Schütte, then sent him to the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, to do a Master’s degree in Philosophy, with the plan that he should go on to teach philosophy at the newly established Holy Spirit Seminary at Kap, near Madang, in what is now the nation of Papua New Guinea (PNG).
FINDING HIS NICHE: LINGUISTIC RESEARCH IN PAPUA NEW GUINEA
In 1963, Z’graggen arrived in Madang, a port...