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LINGUIST List 17.3470

Fri Nov 24 2006

All: Obituary: Wolf Leslau, 1906-2006

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        1.    Grover Hudson, Obituary: Wolf Leslau, 1906-2006

Message 1: Obituary: Wolf Leslau, 1906-2006
Date: 23-Nov-2006
From: Grover Hudson <hudsonmsu.edu>
Subject: Obituary: Wolf Leslau, 1906-2006

Wolf Leslau, surely the greatest Semiticist linguist of the post-war 
generation, whose work established Ethiopian linguistics as an essential
part of Semitic studies, died on Nov. 18, at age 100 + four days. He is
survived by two daughters, Elaine and Sylvia, and grandchildren.

Author of a body of work the size and breadth of which it is difficult to
imagine anyone again matching, and the content of which it is difficult to
imagine anyone again having the competence to match, his life was filled
with love and energy for scholarly work. His publications date from 1933
including eleven articles before the appearance of the book Lexique soqotri
in 1938, and continue uninterrupted almost to this year (The Verb in
Mäsqan, 2004). Until recent months he was diligently working on another
book, on the Ethiopian Semitic language Gogot. Characteristically, at 80
years old he discovered and mastered use of the Macintosh computer,
recognizing its usefulness in composing work using phonetic and
European-language fonts as well as Ethiopic and other Semitic writing systems.

Born in Poland on Nov. 14, 1906, he moved to Vienna in 1926, where he met
his wife Charlotte. In 1931 he took up studies in Paris under Marcel Cohen,
on Ethiopian languages. The war would interrupt his studies but not his
writing: three articles appeared in 1939 and a book documenting Tigrigna,
still perhaps the basic source on this important language, in 1941.
Escaping nazi-occupied France in 1941, he and his wife reached New York in
1942, where he taught at the Asia Institute and the New School for Social
Research. He moved to Brandeis in 1951. After the war he was able to return
to Paris to submit two books and receive in 1953 the Doctorat-ès-Lettres
from the Sorbonne. In 1955 Leslau accepted appointment at UCLA, where he
founded the Department of Near Eastern and African Languages (now Near
Eastern Languages and Cultures) and where he sponsored, taught, and
mentored the first generation of Ethiopian modern linguists. In the sixties
he directed UCLA Amharic-language programs for the U.S. Peace Corps, for
which purpose he wrote his Amharic Textbook (675 pp., 1965, dedicated to
the memory of President John Kennedy) and his Concise Amharic Dictionary
(535 pp., 1976).

A Guggenheim fellowship had first taken him to Ethiopia for field work in
1946 where, helped by an audience with Emperor Haile Sellassie I, he
avoided payment of a prohibitive fee to import his heavy and bulky
recording equipment, and proceeded to regions beyond Addis Ababa to gather
the meticulously written and organized notes which he expanded on
subsequent visits, and was continuing to draw from until this year.
Traveling about by mule, he was the first to study in depth most of the
South Ethiopian Semitic languages, including Gafat (Étude descriptive et
comparative du Gafat, 1956), whose last aging speakers he sought out. He
worked and published on Ethiopian Cushitic and Omotic languages too, and on
other Semitic languages. His field notebooks and cards, gathered before the
benefit of computers, were miraculously cross-referenced by his
encyclopedic memory.

Besides linguistics, he published folk-tales, recordings of music, and many
articles of anthropological interest, and his grammars were often backed up
by thoroughly annotated texts on cultural and social topics. He sponsored
the publication of the first novel written in Chaha. Three hundred
publications were listed in the bibliography of his writings in his 85th
birthday festschrift, Semitic Studies in Honor of Wolf Leslau, A. Kaye, ed.
(1991) --with 137 contributors. An earlier festschrift, Ethiopian Studies
Dedicated to Wolf Leslau, S. Segert and A. Bodrogligeti, eds. (1983), had
honored his 75th birthday, and a later festschrift honored his 90th
birthday: Essays on Gurage Language and Culture, G. Hudson, ed. (1996).

It is impossible here to list even highlights of his honors and
publications, but several monumental books finished after his retirement
from UCLA may be mentioned as indicative of Leslau’s extraordinary energy
and creativity: Etymological Dictionary of Gurage (Ethiopic), 3 vols., 2082
pp., in 1979; Comparative Dictionary of Ge‘ez, 813 pp., in 1987; Fifty
Years of Research (37 selected articles), 503 pp., 1988; Reference Grammar
of Amharic, 1044 pp., in 1995; Zway: Ethiopic Documents, Grammar and
Dictionary, in 1999; and, with his student Thomas Kane, Amharic Cultural
Reader, in 2001. Mentioned above was The Verb in Mäsqan, in 2004; he was
then 98 years old!

Volume 9 (2006) of the journal Aethiopica (Siegbert Uhlig, ed.) was
dedicated to him, as “the grand maître of our field. By his lifework Wolf
Leslau has set milestones for Ethiopian Studies in general, and
Ethio-Semitic linguistics in particular. No scholar or student today can
work in these fields without his dictionaries, grammar books and text
editions. Leslau has served the academic world for many decades, having
erected a lasting monument for himself by his everlasting energy and
indefatigable dedication. His kind personality, engaging manners as well as
the cooperative skills he revealed in his dealings with African colleagues
have been his distinctive mark. The fundamental works his efforts have
produced will stay with us for many decades to come.”

Those of us who studied with him or knew him otherwise are fortunate to
have known not just the scholar and his work but the informed citizen and
gracious gentleman, recalled as a man of subtle humor, knowledgeable and
serious on just about any subject, with understanding for the troubles of
Ethiopia and Africa, with concern for the progress of Semitic and Ethiopian
linguistics and for the preservation of vanishing languages and cultures.

Linguistic Field(s): Not Applicable

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