Matie Voices

Prof JJ Smith

SU Rector 1918–1919

Prof Johannes Jacobus (JJ) Smith was born in Roodezandskloof in the Tulbagh district on 5 October 1883. After matriculating from Paarl Gymnasium, he obtained a BA honours degree in modern languages in 1905 from the Victoria College (today known as Stellenbosch University). This led to him being awarded the Hiddingh Bursary, which enabled him to further his studies at the University of London where he successfully pursued a BA honours degree in English. Anglo-Saxon, Ancient Icelandic and Gothic were among his supporting subjects.

While in London, Smith worked as a researcher for the British Museum and developed a series of lessons in Afrikaans for His Master’s Voice. At the same time, he studied towards a career in law and, after passing his Inns of Court exam, became an advocate of the Honourable Society of the Middle Temple. Inspired by CL Leipoldt, he would also start to publish his own poetry during this period.

After returning to South Africa, Smith was appointed as professor in French and German at the Victoria College in Stellenbosch during 1914. When the institution officially became Stellenbosch University (SU) in 1918, he was appointed chairperson of the Senate (the position of rector had not yet been established) and, the following year, he was presented with its first Chair in Afrikaans.

Between 1914 and 1923, he also held a position as of one of three editors of Ons Moedertaal (which later became Die Huisgenoot). Smith was further involved in establishing the daily newspaper De Burger in 1915, which later became Die Burger. He accepted an invitation to travel to the Netherlands the following year, where he was awarded membership to the Maatschappij der Nederlandse Letterkunde te Leiden.

During 1925, legislation was submitted to parliament in support of declaring Afrikaans an official language, and from 1926 Smith would undertake the vast task of creating the very first dictionary of the Afrikaans language. He would remain its editor until 1943 when he was forced to retire in an official capacity due to ill health.

Among the professional bodies and institutions Smith held membership of over the course of his life are the South African Academy for Language, Literature and Art, as well as the Academy’s Glossary Commission. He was also one of the language advisors of the Afrikaans Bible Translators Society.

Prof Smith passed away on 18 June 1949. During that same year, the University of the Witwatersrand conferred an honorary doctorate in literature on him.