A PASSION FOR DICTIONARIES.

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.

Comments

  1. Thanks for the tip. I wonder if he might know of a good Hindi etymological dictionary.
    I’m a little thrown by the comma placement in this phrase:
    “a dictionary of Tokelauan, the language used by native peoples in New Zealand, American Samoa, and other Pacific islands”
    Am I the only one who initally parsed that as meaning that Tokelauan is “the language used by native peoples in New Zealand, American Samoa, and other Pacific islands”? I have a close friend who is Tokelauan, and he would probably be delighted to know of dictionaries in his language, butI’m sure he’d be as surprised as I weas to learn that Tokelauan is also spoken by the native peoples of NZ. I’m hoping that there mihgt be an editor of some flavour reading this to help me make sense of that phrasing.

  2. scarabaeus says:
  3. Stuart: there are likely more Tokelauans in New Zealand than in Tokelau. Having said that, Tokelau and Maori (the New Zealand indigenous language) are somewhat mutually intelligible but nonetheless quite different Polynesian languages. I can’t think of a way to parse the sentence from the article that isn’t factually wrong.

  4. Stephen, you’re absolutely right of course – there are A LOT more Tokelauans in NZ than in Tokelau. Still Tokelauan is not the language of the native people of NZ, and if as my friend tells me, Tokelauans struggle with Tongan, then the degree of mutual intelligibilty with Māori is likely very small. I know that they are comfortable with Samoan, but in terms of Māori/Tokelauan mutual intelligibility, I’m thinking Romanian/Portuguese is probably a fair analog, or possibly even Romanian/Brazilian Portuguese.
    My Tokelauan friend’s in-laws are actually Māori FL speakers from the Hokianga, so I shall ask him how easy it is to converse with them.

  5. The statement on “Tokelauan” isn’t the only wrong one, I’m afraid! The statement “…in Papua New Guinea alone, which is the only country in the world, by the way, in which pidgin English is an official language” is quite untrue: Papua New Guinea’s close neighbor, Vanuatu, has three official languages (English, French and Bislama), the last of which is an English-based pidgin (historically related, in fact, to Tok Pisin, one of Papua New Guinea’s official languages). *Sigh*…is fact-checking really so difficult?

  6. rootlesscosmo says:

    I take it his collection is of monolingual dictionaries only? I used to have fun dreaming up obscure bilingual pairings: Yiddish-Quechua, for instance, or Faeroese-Thai. Indispensable for the traveler!

  7. John Emerson says:

    In my college library was a facing pages poetry book of Romanian poetry translated into Portuguese. The school had never taught Romanian and no longer taught Portuguese. As I remember, it was a UNESCO-type project, and presumably had been received gratis by the school’s former Portuguese teacher.

  8. marie-lucie says:

    The collection is of bilingual dictionaries, with one of the languages a language of wide dissemination such as French, Portuguese, English, etc.
    Tokelauan, the language used by native peoples in New Zealand, American Samoa, and other Pacific islands
    This, the correct quotation, does not say the native people of NZ, etc, but the statement is still misleading. It should have said a language. But perhaps this is the fault of the interviewer or transcriber rather than the person interviewed.

  9. It should have said a language
    It would still be very odd and simply wrong. Tokelauan is not even a language used by native peoples in NZ, Samoa, etc. The only place where one can be certain that Tokelauan is used by “native peoples” is Tokelau. Assuming a standard definition of “native peoples” as indigenoius of “first nation”, then NZ’s native peoples all speak English, and some of them also speak Māori.

  10. My last comment on this Tokelauan business. I have just realised that the words as written actually are technically true. Wikipedia enlightened me by noting that Tokelauan is the dominant language among the 37 or so inhabitants of Swain island, part of American Samoa. It then dawned on me that since Tokelau is a territory of NZ, uses NZ currency and since its people have NZ citizenship, given a sufficiently broad definition of “New Zealand”, Tokelauanis a native language of NZ.

  11. Siganus Sutor says:

    In this case Palikur should be considered a native language of France…

  12. OT-ish, but unmissable: from today’s Corrections column in The Guardian -
    A letter to the editor, which touched lightly on English ignorance of Welsh matters, was attributed in an early edition to Hwyl Fawry. It should have been attributed to Gill Caldwell. She signed off her letter with hwyl fawr, which translates roughly as “all the best”

  13. Heh.

  14. J.W. Brewer says:

    @rootlesscosmo, I recall hearing during various rounds of EU expansion that lucrative job opportunities were expected be available in Brussels for anyone who could do simultaneous translation for a particularly unlikely pair of official languages (e.g. Maltese-Finnish, Gaelic-Slovenian), thus obviating the delay and distortion risked by using a sequence of two translators communicating with each other via English/French/German or some such conduit. Whether this was jocular rather than serious at the time, and what has subsequently transpired, are both unknown to me.

  15. marie-lucie says:

    language used by native peoples in NZ, etc
    Perhaps the problem with the sentence above is the meaning of “native peoples”, which in this context seems to mean “people of non-European origin living in”, rather than “people aboriginal to” the respective countries mentioned.
    In this case Palikur should be considered a native language of France…
    I had to look up the name, as I had never heard of this language, which I understand is one of those spoken in French Guyana.
    Yes, the phrasing is indeed awkward.

  16. “native peoples”, which in this context seems to mean “people of non-European origin living in”, rather than “people aboriginal to” the respective countries
    That’s how I took it.

  17. komfo,amonan says:

    My answer to the question “What would you do if money were no object?” is “Collect bilingual or multilingual dictionaries of languages other than English.” Although I guess I should think bigger & commission some, like Faeroese-Thai or Gaelic-Slovenian.
    As it stands I have a Swabian-German dictionary, about the size of an apricot.

  18. On the subject of Irish (“Gaelic”) as an EU langwidge:

    To implement the amended Council Regulation, it is estimated that the EU institutions will need 29 new posts for translators and support staff. The Irish government has committed itself to train the necessary number of translators and interpreters and to bear the related costs. From January 2007 onwards, the annual costs to the EU of the Irish language services are estimated at around 3.5 million euros.

    You would imagine that the necessary number of interpreters would be zero, really. But it isn’t at all easy to get a gig at the EU: they tend to demand a lot of professional interpreting experience, even in langwidges where it’s become difficult to find applicants (notably, Engleesh).
    I read an interview with a Dutch interpreter to the EU parliament a while back, and it does appear that most smaller langwidges are covered through so-called relay interpreting (via one of the big three).

  19. The only reference I have on Frisian is a Dutch phrasebook of it. (Unfortunately it isn’t very good.)
    I also have a Castillian/English/Catalan phrasebook produced for the Barcelona Olympics, and a miniature Platt-Standard Cherman dictionary. And I believe that since Latin went out of style the only usable materials for learning Greenlandic have been written in Danish. And everything I will ever know about Occitan will have been written in French.
    Spotting the pattern is left as an exercise for the reader, for sure. Breaking the pattern is left as an exercise for the more extravagant reader, for even surer.

  20. I guess I’m more of a grammarian than a lexicographer at heart, inasmuch as I could picture myself building up a similar sort of book collection with the first published grammar of as many languages as possible. Unless, of course, somebody already has done this/is doing this now (Has anybody here heard of such an endeavour?)
    As for odd language combinations…a dear friend of mine, who studied at a department with a *very* cosmopolitan student body, told me once that one of the “in-jokes” there referred to the local library’s “missing Swahili-Chinese dictionary”.

  21. John Emerson says:

    Didn’t Hat refer to a mysterious Basque-Inuit glassary once here?

  22. John Emerson says:

    Almost not off-topic: does anyone here know anything about the early life of the Sinologist Herrlee Glessner Creel? I’ve found a second, older Herrlee Glessner Creel, and he’s a political journalist and activist.

  23. marie-lucie says:

    A Creel wrote about resemblances between early Chinese art and the art of the Pacific Northwest. Are they all related?

  24. “in this context seems to mean “people of non-European origin living in”
    OK, so if we accpet that definition, Hindi, Punjabi, Tamizh, Korean, Cantonese and Putonghua are also languages of native peoples of NZ. This might sound like nitpicking perhaps, but I am genuinely aghast at the idea that the author’s intent was to use “Native” in the sort of 19th-Century fashion you describe above. How someone who collects dictionaries of many languages could implicitly lump all non-whites as “natives” is not something I can fathom. Nor am I sure that I want to.

  25. Herrlee Glessner Creel is indeed the son of Harry G. Creel and received a special trade unionist baptism (his name is spelled there like his father’s).

  26. The elder Creel’s work.

  27. Snippets of larger family tree in Google Books.

  28. SnowLeopard says:

    Over the past few years I’ve been gathering a collection of grammars and dictionaries (and occasionally accompanying texts or other cultural materials) but I doubt my modest heap is anything the august company here would marvel at. I’m seldom interested in the *first* works per se on a given language, unless the language has since gone extinct or changed significantly after contact with the west, because early dictionaries and grammars often simply are not very detailed, or very accurate. You can’t be too picky, though, and often the grammar records a different dialect from the dictionary. But I’m seeing a growing trend of lexicographers taking a broader view of their work, and recording not just vocabulary but sample sentences, and actually turning the book into a bit of a cultural encyclopedia, before everything’s lost. As someone who throws fits over the thought of accumulated knowledge being dissipated or forgotten, I like that.

  29. marie-lucie says:

    MMcM, I guess this elder Creel is not the one I am (slightly) familiar with.
    Stuart, not being very familiar with the NZ situation I wasn’t thinking of other ethnic groups not originally from the general area (besides the European ones), so my “definition” was probably vaguer than what the dictionary collector intended, but it does seem that he was indeed using “native peoples” in the 19th century fashion, lumping together several different ethnic and linguistic groups. Either he himself did, or the interviewer did.

  30. John Emerson says:

    The elder Creel was a labor militant of the Bookbinder’s Union. Unless there’s a militant of the Lexicographer’s Union, the Translator’s Union, the Linguist’s Union, or the Copyeditor’s Union available, I propose that H G Creel Senior be declared LH’s official labor militant.

  31. John Emerson says:

    The elder Creel played a considerable role in Minnesota radical history. There was a later, Trotskyist Creel who ran for Congress in MN, and during WWI one George Creel was Wilson’s main propagandist.
    Talk about running into creels everywhere (the genealogy link.
    Thanks enormously, MMcM. This was really a hopeless shot in the dark on my part. The question was starting to threaten my sanity. If some of the things I read had been produced in the word-processer age, I would have suspected auto-fill.
    I began my study of Classical Cinese with Creel’s eccentric text, and will defend it still, up to a point. More recently I’ve been digging into MN political history. The “small world” effect was discombobulationg.

  32. mollymooly says:

    Welcome from the Governor-General of New Zealand:

    Welcome, Kia Ora, Kia Orana, Fakalofa Lahi Atu, Taloha Ni.
    I greet you in the languages of the Realm of New Zealand – English, Māori, Cook Island Māori, Niuean and Tokelauan.

  33. marie-lucie says:

    So, how many Creels were there? and were the political Creels related to the Chinese Creel, or was the latter also political?

  34. “I greet you in the languages of the Realm of New Zealand”
    Exactly the definition I was talking about earlier – The GG is the only person who ever uses the phrase, I would think most NZers would struggle to define it. Of course, His Excellency omitted one language from the list – NZSL.

  35. how many Creels were there?
    Two volumes full, at 900+ pages each.
    were the political Creels related to the Chinese Creel?
    Herrlee “Harry” Glessner Creel, Sr. was the son of Oakey Haglan Creel and Olive Abigail Thornburg. He was a journalist and (honorary?) member of the bookbinders’ union.
    Herrlee Glessner Creel Jr. was his son. He was the sinologist.
    Warren Creel was another son. He executive secretary of the Duluth Teachers Assn. and SWP candidate.
    Anel Creel Rouse was a daughter. She wrote under the pen name of Ann Ross.
    George Creel was the son of Henry Clay Creel and Virginia Fackler. It’s too tedious to use snippet view to link him to the rest up and over through the generations.

  36. A Creel wrote about resemblances between early Chinese art and the art of the Pacific Northwest. … I guess this elder Creel is not the one I am (slightly) familiar with.
    That sounds like Herrlee Glessner Creel, (Jr.) the Chicago sinologist. E.g., here.

  37. marie-lucie says:

    Thank you, MMcM! just what I needed.

  38. This place is an amazing generator of obscure knowledge; I’m proud to be the facilitator thereof.

  39. dearieme says:

    Kia Ora was a popular brand of orange squash in my British childhood.
    hwyl fawr

  40. I’m just boggled, in a happy way. Thanks again.

  41. I’m just boggled, in a happy way. Thanks again.

  42. Kia Ora was a popular brand of orange squash in my British childhood.
    In a Martin Clunes TV comedy, his character arrives at a marae and is greeted with “Kia ora”, to which he reflexively replies, “No thanks, just water.”

  43. marie-lucie says:

    This place is an amazing generator of obscure knowledge; I’m proud to be the facilitator thereof.
    As well you should be! This is the best place on the web.

  44. A.J.P. Chow says:

    a Martin Clunes TV comedy
    Which one, Stuart?

  45. A.J.P. Smoke Kools. says:

    This place is an amazing generator of obscure knowledge; I’m proud to be the facilitator thereof.
    Funny you should mention it. I’m getting to be quite an expert on snowblowers — sort of the dos and don’ts — I’d be glad to give any advice.

  46. I’m getting to be quite an expert on snowblowers — sort of the dos and don’ts — I’m getting to be quite an expert on snowblowers — sort of the dos and don’ts.
    We’ve all already figured out not to stick our hands in one while it’s running. Snowblowers are a lot like cornpickers that way.

  47. I’m getting to be quite an expert on snowblowers — sort of the dos and don’ts — I’m getting to be quite an expert on snowblowers — sort of the dos and don’ts.
    We’ve all already figured out not to stick our hands in one while it’s running. Snowblowers are a lot like cornpickers that way.

  48. Why do I feel a sudden urge to smoke Kools?

  49. A.J.P. Smoke Kools. says:

    See, it works! I’m hoping to get funding from tobacco companies. They have so very few opportunities to advertise these days.
    There’s a lot more to snowblowers than that, John Emerson.

  50. a lot like cornpickers
    …and the power takeoff on a tractor.
    I hope the Hattery will remain smoke free. For anyone who is having trouble with the smoking trigger words in Kron’s latest nom de guerre, I changed my URL back to the “how to quit smoking” post.

  51. I noticed the snow on the Norway webc@ms, and the Norwegian ski slopes look nice too, but here the snow has melted and the rivers are six inches above flood stage. What we really need to know is how to tread water.
    Your comment could not be submitted due to questionable content: web cam
    Naughty naughty spambots, must not post links to Norwegian cams.
    http://www.webc@msinnorway.com/webc@ams.php?viewcam=422
    Change the @’s to a’s.

  52. A.J.P. Exxon says:

    We have between four feet and two metres of snow in our garden now. I’ve taken up snowblowing as a sport.

  53. a Martin Clunes TV comedy
    Which one, Stuart?

    The Man Who Lost His Head

  54. A.J.P. you cannot say "Buvez Coca-Cola" says:

    Thanks. I hadn’t heard of that one.

  55. Besides prinsessen, Des von Bladet is also an expert on Snokaos. He owes us a report, if you ask me.

  56. Besides prinsessen, Des von Bladet is also an expert on Snokaos. He owes us a report, if you ask me.

  57. A.J.P. Crown says:

    If you really want to see snøkaos you have to be in England. They don’t have much snow, just one hell of a lot of chaos.
    The contractor’s head honcho, who built the building we designed in Germany, used to predict komplet chaos if things weren’t done his way. It’s become a catchphrase for me.

  58. Ah, snøkaos. It is readily caused (so far as I can tell everywhere) by snø that is unusually early, unusually late, unusually heavy, belongs to unusual emperors or looks unusually like flies from a distance.
    On the other hand, the degree of kaos varies widely: one year we were in Helsingrad for the snøkaos season, and all it meant was the buses were a few minutes late.
    We heard second hand of a transport-type person in London who said, roughly, “We get snø like this roughly once every fifty years; we could be prepared to handle it if anyone wished to pay for the preparations, but they don’t.” Which is fair enough, really.
    Readers who’ve made it this far may also be exhilarated to know that in Chermany it is verplicht to have winter tyres when there are wintersomstandigheden on the roads, and we have skipped driving in Chermany twice this winter for this reason.

  59. A.J.P. Crown says:

    “We get snø like this roughly once every fifty years”
    Yes, and they get kaos like that every other year.
    The other thing they get in England (but nowhere else) is “leaves on the line”. It’s some kind of seasonal curse that every November stops the trains in Southern England. Apparently, the wheels spin in place but the train doesn’t move. It has only ever occurred in Southern England.
    If you have winter tyres with studs, you are supposed to pay some money every time you drive through Oslo. Ridiculous, really, it’s sort of an honour system. I can’t remember the amount, because I’ve never paid it.

  60. Zis is Kaos. Not to be confused with T.H.R.U.S.H. “The Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity”.

  61. The other thing they get in England (but nowhere else) is “leaves on the line”
    They get it in the Netherlands too, but apparently they deal with it better. (They didn’t have a bunch of managers come in with privatisation and fire all the competent engineers, which probably helped.)

  62. In Chicago the trains are stopped by snø on the overhead electrical wires.

  63. A.J.P. Crown says:

    Ha ha.
    Roundabouts are brilliant, but they only work in Britain & Ireland (& possibly the Isle of Man).
    They’ve installed them all over Norway, where everyone is either too polite or too nervous to enter them. Now there are huge traffic jams where formerly there was fast-flowing traffic.
    The only place I’ve seen them in the USA is on Cape Cod. No one can use them there, either.

  64. We have rotaries (and their fans) all over New England, not just on the Cape.

  65. A.J.P. Crown says:

    MMcM, where have you been? You can’t just disappear like that, you’re the only one who knows anything.

  66. We love dictionaries too, although we’re not yet as erudite as you lot! Check out our site (www.videodictionary.com) for a more modern dictionary and see what you can add!

  67. marie-lucie says:

    When I moved to the city I am in, many of the ads for apartments said “Avoid the Rotary!” In fact there were two “rotaries” which were best avoided, one of which has since then been dismantled. After I bought a car I discovered why it had been a good idea to “avoid the rotary” even when I did not have one. This rotary has since then been redesigned and rebaptized “roundabout”, although it does not seem very different from what it was before.

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