Kittel, Ferdinand

1832 - 1903
Missionary and linguist
Basel Mission

Ferdinand Kittel, the Basel mission deputy to India’s Karnataka state, accorded the status of a "Kannada saint"[1] played a cherished role in the state's linguistic legacy. Kittel was born on April 7, 1832 in Resterhafe in the northern part of Germany, the son of a missionary named Gottfried Christian Kittel and his wife Helen. He completed his primary schooling in his hometown and attended high school in the neighbouring town of Aurich.[2]

After finishing school, Kittel studied for three years at the Basel seminary. On graduating, 21–year old Kittel was sent by the Basel mission to India in 1853. Kittel first served as a deputy to Hermann Mogling, who is credited with bringing out the first Kannada daily newspaper, Mangalur Samachar, at the Basel mission station in Dharwad, in North Karnataka. Kittel began his study of the local Kannada language and soon attained remarkable proficiency.[3]

As a missionary, he followed the apostle Paul's teaching in the first Epistle to the Corinthians and became as an "Indian unto the Indians" or more particularly, a "Kannadiga to the Kannadigas". Apart from learning the language, Kittel also took efforts to acquaint himself with the local customs and music. Following his tenure in Dharwad, Kittel spent several years in Mangalore and Madikeri, with short stints in Hubli and Anandapura.

In 1860, during his time in Mangalore, Kittel married Pauline F. Eyth, a fellow German. It was a happy marriage and they had two children. However, in 1864, Pauline died suddenly. After spending two more years in Mangalore, Kittel returned home with his two children in 1866. A year later, he returned to India with his second wife, his first wife’s younger sister, Julie W. Eyth.[4]

Kittel fell in love with poems in Kannada. Subsequently, he began to collect handwritten copies of poems in every place his missionary work took him to and proceeded to study them. Kittel was so moved by the rhythm, the metaphors, and the beauty of these poems that he decided to make them a medium to share the gospel. His poems in the Bhamini Shatpadi[5]and other similar metres achieved some success towards this goal. A narrative poem about Christ titled "Kathaamaale" presented the life of Jesus Christ in a traditional musical metre style.

Danielanu Mattu Avana Jothegaararu (Daniel and His Followers) was Kittel’s first work in Kannada. His collection of songs, "Kannada Sangeethagaḷu", were hymns to be sung in church. In 1863, Kittel published "Paramaatmagnyaana"(Knowledge of the Supreme Spirit) in Kannada. In 1864, he published  translations "Kannada Panchatantra" (Collection of Fables), "Englandina Itihaasa" (History of England), and "Hindu Deshada Itihaasa" (History of the Hindu Land) for children. In 1865, Kittel authored "Yēsu Kristana Shramecharitre", a narrative of incidents that took place prior to the crucifixion of Christ. "Saṇṇa Karnataka Kaavyamaale" was a collection of poems for children. The years 1866 and 1870 saw the publication of the translated works Hale Kannada Sankshēpa Vyaakaraṇa Sootragaḷu (Summary of the Rules of Old Kannada Grammar) and Christana Sabhaa Charitre (History of the Christian Church) respectively.

In 1872, Kittel collected nine edited handwritten works from different parts of Karnataka and after examining them thoroughly, he edited and published the first-ever modern and systematic edition of Keshiraja’s Shabdamanidarpana (Jewel-Mirror of Grammar, a 1260 AD work on Kannada grammar) accompanied by a commentary written by Nishtura Nanjayya. Kittel himself wrote a scholarly introduction to the work. Kittel’s other works during this year include "A Tract on Sacrifice" (1872), and "Parable of the Sower" (1872).

In 1875, with the help of 14 different handwritten copies, he edited and published a modern work titled "Nagavarmana Chandassu" (Nagavarman’s Rhyme). Nāgavarma I (c. 990) was a noted Jain writer and poet in the Kannada language of the late 10th century).[6] Kittel’s "An Essay on Canarese Literature" included in this book was a critical appraisal of Kannada literature up to the 19th century. 

Kittel wrote articles in the first ever Kannada daily Mangalore Samachara (Mangalore News) and edited Vichitra Vartamana Sangraha (Collection of Interesting Current Events) and India Mattu Anya Deshada Vartika (News from India and Other Lands) newspapers. His works on the Puranas (mythology) and Kodava[7] rituals are noteworthy.[8]

Kittel’s contribution numbered more than 700 poems and stories in Kannada.[9] The crown jewel is his 1894 work A Kannada-English Dictionary. Nearly 112 years after the lexicon was published, Kittel’s dictionary has many electronic versions[10], a testimony to its enduring legacy and use. In 2018, the Central Institute of Indian Languages concluded its Kittel Dictionary Project with a copy on its website.[11]

The story goes that seeing Kittel’s contribution to Kannada, the head of the Basel Mission, Rev Josenhans, suggested  in 1872 that he consider compiling a dictionary for Kannada. As part of the re-assignation, Kittel was also relieved of his missionary duties. On hearing about this, missionary seniors Mogling and Elliot wrote letters to encourage him.[12] 

The challenges of lexicography

Kittel’s love for learning Kannada words stood him in good stead. Lexicography requires a deep and scholarly understanding of the classics and a knowledge of linguistics. When Kittel began his work on the Kannada-English dictionary, he consulted dictionaries that had been authored by other missionaries for Kannada and the other Dravidian languages.[[13]  

He also received help from his colleague Rev Zeigler to collect the names of plants and roots and from Vastrada Shivalingaiah, a school teacher in Hubli, to collect colloquial words from the region. 

In just 15 years, a handwritten manuscript of the dictionary with 70,000 words was ready. Kittel’s foreword is a long and detailed one. In it, he discussed the Kannada language, the books he referred to, the dictionary’s system, the transliteration of the Kannada script, and the Dravidian[14] elements present in Sanskrit dictionaries. At the very end of this foreword, Kittel included a list of 420 words of Dravidian origin which he believed were borrowed by Sanskrit. E.Hultzsch, the German Indologist credited Kittel's efforts and said, “No other vernacular of India can boast of a more accurate, scientific and orderly dictionary as this one."

Tuebingen University in Germany recognised Kittel with a D.Litt for his contribution to the Kannada language, and in particular for the dictionary. [15]

Using notes he made during his work on Shabdamanidarpana, Kittel authored A Grammar of the Kannada Language in English in 1903 which was published by the Basel Mission Press. Kittel died on March 19, 1903, a day after he held the first copy of the published work in his hands.

In honour of Karnataka’s adopted son, a locality close to the central business district of Bengaluru, Austin Town which was named after Sir James Austin, a British Collector and municipal president, was renamed Ferdinand Kittel Nagara in 1998. A statue of Kittel stands inside a tiny, tree-filled park in the Karnataka state capital Bengaluru, along the busy MG Road. Another statue graces Dharwad, where Kittel first served. A number of colleges offering degrees in the humanities and sciences presently run by the Church of South India (CSI) in Dharwad are named after him. When the Kannada Sahitya Parishad (Society for Literature) celebrated its 86th conference in Haveri district in north Karnataka in January 2023, representatives from the society travelled to Munich, Germany, to invite Ferdinand Kittel’s descendants to the event.[16]


  1. ^ “Rev Ferdinand Kittel: The Kannada saint”, Indian Express, November 14, 2011, accessed December 19, 2023,
  2. ^ “Ferdinand Kittel”, Wikipedia, last modified December 13,2023, accessed December 19, 2023,
  3. ^ Padmanabha Kekunnaya, “Ferdinand Kittel, the German missionary who became a Kannada convert”, The South First, June 4, 2023, accessed December 19, 2023,
  4. ^ Kekunnaya, “Ferdinand Kittel”.
  5. ^ Shatpadi is a prosodic metre in Kannada. Shatpadi  literally stands for "six lines". This is a metre where the first, second, fourth and fifth lines are equal to one another in terms of the basic elements of Kannada prosody. Bhamini qualifies as among the most popular shatpadis used by many renowned Kannada poets. "Shatpadi", accessed January 2, 2024,
  6. ^ Kittel, Ferdinand ed; Nagavarma’s Canarese Prosody (Mangalore: Basel Mission Book & Tract Depository, 1875),
  7. ^ The Kodava people or Kodavas or Codavas are an ethno-linguistic group from the region of Kodagu in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, who natively speak the Kodava language.
  8. ^ “Rev Ferdinand Kittel: The Kannada saint”. 
  9. ^ Kekunnaya, “Ferdinand Kittel”.
  10. ^ “Digital Dictionaries of South Asia,” Kittels Kannada-English Dictionary, University of Chicago, last modified July, 2023,
  11. ^ “Reverend Ferdinand Kittel’s 112-year-old Kannada dictionary uploaded online”, The Times of India, October 9, 2018, accessed December 19, 2023,
  12. ^ Ferdinand Kittel, the German missionary who became a Kannada convert.
  13. ^ A Dictionary, Canarese and English (1832) by Rev W Reeve, A Dictionary, Tamil and English (1834) by Rev Rottler, A. D. Campbell’s A Dictionary of the Teloogoo Language (181), C. P. Brown’s A Telugu-English Dictionary’ (1852), A. Manor’s Tulu-English Dictionary (1888), Monier Williams’ Sanskrit English Dictionary (1872), Rev Gundert’s Malayalam-English Dictionary (1872), and Caldwell’s A Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian or South Indian Family of Languages’ (1856).
  14. ^ The Dravidian peoples, also known as Dravidians, represent an ethnolinguistic family of people who primarily live in Southern India and parts of Sri Lanka.
  15. ^ Rev Ferdinand Kittel:The Kannada saint.
  16. ^ Basavraj Maralihalli, “Kannada Sahitya Parishad invites Kittel’s family for 86th Kannada Sahitya Sammelana”, The Times of India, November 11, 2022, accessed December 19,2023,

Philip Malayil

The writer is the coordinator for the South Asia region for


“Ferdinand Kittel, the German missionary who became a Kannada convert”.  South First, June 4, 2023.….

Kittel, Ferdinand,ed. Nagavarma’s Canarese Prosody. Mangalore: Basel Mission Book and Tract Depository.….

Maralihalli, Basavraj. “Kannada Sahitya Parishad invites Kittel’s family for 86th Kannada Sahitya Sammelana.” The Times of India, November 11, 2022.….

“Reverend Ferdinand Kittel’s 112-year-old Kannada dictionary uploaded online.” The Times of India, October 9, 2018.….

 “Rev Ferdinand Kittel: The Kannada saint”. The Indian Express. November 14, 2011.….

University of Chicago. “Digital Dictionaries of South Asia.” Accessed December 21, 2023.

Wikipedia. “Ferdinand Kittel”. Last modified December 13, 2023.