December 1, 2006

Remembering Wolf Leslau, the Ge'ez Scholar, 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.

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የአቡነ ጳውሎስ "ሐውልተ ስምዕ"

ነጻ ፓትርያርክ ምርጫ ቢሆን ኖሮ ማንን ይመርጡ ነበር? እንበልና ሁሉም ነገር ሥርዓቱን ጠብቆ የተከናወነ የእጩዎች ምርጫ ቢሆን ኖሮ፣ አሁን የምናነሣቸው ጉድለቶች ባይኖሩ ኖሮ፣ 6ኛው ፓትርያርክ እንዲሆን የምትመርጡት ማንን ነበር? (ማሳሰቢያ፦ አሁን ያለው ክፍፍል እና የመንግሥት ተጽዕኖ ባይኖር ኖሮ ተብሎ የሚመለስ ጥያቄ ነው። የምን “ባይኖር ኖሮ ነው” የሚል አስተያየት ካለዎትም እናከብራለን።)