I don’t even know how to start telling you about Carl Masthay and his obsessively compiled and self-published Kaskaskia Illinois-to-French Dictionary. Just go read the Riverfront Times article (by Matthew Everett); you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll wonder how he finds girlfriends, you may even wind up sending him $30 for the book. No rush; it’s not selling out any time soon. (Thanks to the indefatigable Bob Cohen for the tip, and to Prentiss Riddle for the dictionary link.)
Addendum. I just (Jan. 2006) discovered the Everett article has migrated to another URL; having at first thought it had vanished, I believe I’ll reproduce some of it here just in case:
For Masthay, though, the dictionary—more than twelve years in the works—is a final, monumental validation of the decades he’s spent looking into the hidden corners of language. Through his self-financed and often obsessive research, Masthay has marked out a peculiar and far-reaching patch of intellectual territory, becoming something of a local legend in the process for his intelligence and his eccentricities.
Masthay, 62, came to St. Louis in 1967 after a stint in the U.S. Air Force. He enrolled in graduate school at Washington University, working toward a master’s degree in Chinese. After a year at Wash. U., he went to work at the Mosby publishing company, editing medical texts. He stayed there 33 years, retiring in January 2002. Outside work, he pursued his other interests: biology, astronomy, entomology, archaeology and, in particular, foreign languages.
“I see languages as tools to understand the universe, to understand other people’s cultures,” he says, rubbing his temples as he searches for the exact words he wants. “As a kid, I saw them as codes. I want to know what they’re holding.”
Over the years, Masthay has become a familiar figure on the academic circuit. He counts professors at major universities all over the world as his friends. His living room is cluttered with journals and science magazines, in addition to hundreds of compact discs (mostly world and ethnic music), his own notebooks and photocopied pages of poems, puns and etymologies. He claims fluency in five languages—French, German, Chinese, Spanish, Russian—and competence in dozens more, with texts in Russian, Arabic, Chinese and Japanese lining the shelves in his house.
Masthay occupies a nebulous place among professional scholars; he’s not quite an equal, but many of them appreciate his efforts and consider him a respected contributor to their fields.
“People cite his work. They trust it enough to cite it,” says linguist David J. Costa, who works with Indian tribes to revive dormant languages. “He’s not a linguist in the sense that he has a degree in linguistics, but he’s a linguist in the sense that he speaks a lot of languages. The consensus seems to be that he’s a very reliable editor, a skilled translator, and he’s almost insanely meticulous. And when you’re preparing a scholarly edition of a 300- or 400-year-old manuscript, that attention to detail is essential.” (Masthay would dispute Costa’s characterization of his credentials. He says the work he did to transcribe another Indian document, Schmick’s Mahican Dictionary, would have been enough to qualify him for a doctorate.)
As someone who also “occupies a nebulous place among professional scholars,” I salute his dogged and unremunerative efforts.