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Dictionary of the Latvian Language (1923-1932) by KĀRLIS MĪLENBAHS AND JĀNIS ENDZELĪNS

Having graduated from his studies of classical philology at the University of Tartu in 1880, Kārlis Mīlenbahs, a provincial teacher, started collecting field data about the Latvian language without even giving any thought to anything as voluminous as a dictionary. In 1900, joined by Jānis Endzelīns, also a graduate of Tartu in classics and Slavic philology, travel around Latvia researching the various dialects. In conversation, the two linguists plotted the basic outline of a dictionary project and in 1907 they published their first collaboration "Latvian Grammar".

The dictionary was started in 1905 and one third of it was finished by 1911. In 1915 Mīlenbahs was quoted to say that he expected the work on the dictionary to take another five or six years, but he died in 1916 after having completed the alphabetical entries to the word "patumšs".

In 1921, Mīlenbahs’s work was resumed by professor Jānis Endzelīns. In 1923, the first brochure appeared – the first of forty-five that later formed four sizeable volumes, the last of which appeared in 1932. From 1934 to 1946 Endzelīns, together with linguist Edīte Hauzenberga-Šturma prepared two supplementary volumes that contained corrections and additional material collected with the help of readers and specially prepared collectors of dialectal words.  

The 5480 pages of the Dictionary contain about 120 thousand words. For each, the meaning is given in German (sometimes the number of meanings exceeds a dozen); many phraseology examples are used as well as quotes of folk-songs, fairy-tales as well as older literature that provide context for the word.  The meanings are arranged chronologically, with the oldest given first. Borrowings from German or Russian are practically excluded and so are new words, which the authors had considered still unstable. Making use of his knowledge of the historical grammar of the Indo-European historical grammar, Endzelīns also explained the etymology of words, which placed Latvian on the same level as other described languages.

Mīlenbahs and Endzelīns’s dictionary is both a scientific work where the elements of a language have been collected and systematized and at the same time it serves as a commentary on the inner workings of a particular culture.

Raimonds Briedis

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