Capell graduated from the University of Sydney in 1922 as the University medallist in Classics. He taught in high school for three years, was ordained minister of Church of England serving in the Newcastle Diocese for a decade. He pursued his linguistic studies privately, but went on to obtain an M.A. in Classics at the University of Sydney (1931). He undertook a doctoral programme at the University of London in 1935, and graduating the following year with a Ph.D. from the School of Oriental and African Studies, with a thesis on The linguistic position of south-eastern Papua, which was published in book form in 1943. His primary interest was in Oceanic Linguistics, and he is said to have regarded his research of aboriginal languages to be a matter of weekend work, though he did spend lengthy periods doing fieldwork in both the Kimberleys and Arnhem Land.
When A. P. Elkin, then Anglican rector at Morpeth was appointed to a professorship in anthropology at Sydney, Capell served as his locum tenens in the parish. On vacations back in Morpeth, Elkin was impressed by Capell's linguistic gifts, and eventually arranged a lectureship in linguistics for him in 1945. He was appointed reader in 1948.
Notwithstanding his extensive work on Papuan and Polynesian languages, including dictionaries of Fijian, Palauan and Western Futuna, Capell managed to make important contributions to Australian linguistics, particularly in discovering typologically distinct north-westerrnh languages which could not be assimilated to the standard Pama-Nyungan language family.
Capell was fond of punning, an example being his pronunciation of Semantics as "some antics" When his housekeeper fell ill, he hired another to care for her and, when the second in turn fell ill, Capell looked after both of them.
- Capell, Arthur (1954). A linguistic survey of the south-west Pacific. Nouméa, New Caledonia: South Pacific Commission. OCLC 4048027.
- Capell, Arthur (1962). A linguistic survey of the south-west Pacific (New and Revised ed.). Nouméa, New Caledonia: South Pacific Commission. OCLC 2584664.
- Dixon, R. M. W. (2011). Searching for Aboriginal Languages: Memoirs of a Field Worker. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-1-108-02504-1.
- Lynch, John (1987). "Obituary: Arthur Capell (1902-1986)" (PDF). 15 (1). Language and Linguistics in Melanesia: 1–4.
- Newton, Peter J. F. (2007). "Capell, Arthur (1902–1986)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. 17. Melbourne University Press.
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