In this thread, AJP directed my attention to Just the Right Word by Nicholas A. Basbanes (“Well known for writing about books, bibliophiles, and various aspects of book culture, Nicholas Basbanes has worked as an award-winning investigative reporter, a literary editor, a lecturer, and a nationally syndicated columnist”; the name is apparently pronounced /’bæsbeynz/). Here, Basbanes reports on “Breon Mitchell’s 2,000 dictionaries of exotic languages.”
His interest in lexicons grew out of his interest in linguistics and translation and his work as a professor of Germanic studies and comparative literature at Indiana, a position he still holds in addition to his duties at the Lilly.
“I started out to collect one dictionary for every language in the world, but then it became much more interesting to get the first dictionaries published,” he explained of his purpose. “Then I decided to limit myself to non-European languages and living languages. A further limitation was that I wasn’t going to collect any of the major languages of the world either, regardless of geography, and I would be the one to decide which are the major languages, based on the number of people who are speaking them.” …
“There are some other collections of dictionaries, but they generally focus on a particular language or two. I know of no institution that is specifically building a dictionary collection at all like this one, so there is a definite utility to it.”
Mitchell said that there are more than 6,000 active languages in the world, most of which have no dictionary at all. “The number of languages for which a dictionary exists is probably around 1,000, though it could be as many as 1,500.” …
“I was interested at first in what we might call the exotic languages or rare languages spoken by very few people. But some of these languages we might think of as rare are in fact spoken by millions,” he said, citing the languages of the Indian subcontinent, of native or indigenous populations of the Western hemisphere, and of African regions as examples. “There are more than 800 different languages in Papua New Guinea alone, which is the only country in the world, by the way, in which pidgin English is an official language.”Thus, Mitchell admits another category to his shelves: pidgin and Creole languages. …
Mitchell’s copy of an 1861 Zulu–English dictionary of 10,000 entries contains numerous annotations and corrections inserted by the book’s former owner, A. N. Montgomery, an author of books related to South African history. Mitchell’s copy of the 1878 revised edition of the dictionary is annotated and signed by the black African printer.
“I also collect gypsy languages and Inuit languages,” Mitchell said. “I have a very early Eskimo dictionary—a Latin–Greenlandic–Eskimo dictionary, printed in 1804 in Copenhagen.” He has Australian aboriginal dictionaries and a dictionary of Tokelauan, the language used by native peoples in New Zealand, American Samoa, and other Pacific islands. Another dictionary, of Rapa Nui, is the “first two-way dictionary of the language of Easter Island.” Yet another: a copy of the “first and only dictionary” of Nyoro, a Bantu language spoken by more than 500,000 people living east of Lake Albert in Uganda.
Mitchell estimates his holdings of Native American dictionaries at more than 125 languages, including one, of the Otchipwe language, acquired at Sotheby’s in the Frank T. Seibert sale in 1999 for $4,312.50, the most he has spent for any book in the collection. “With the help of the Internet, I was able to collect broadly around the world and assemble a really fine collection within about two years for very little money,” he said. He also noted that he has used all other conventional methods as well, including the development of good relationships with booksellers and the prowling of junk shops and antique stores.
I would love to spend some time exploring his collection, but I’m happy just knowing it exists.