Linguist Kārlis Mīlenbahs' (1853–1916) "Dictionary of the Latvian Language"
An essential source for local and foreign scholars alike, Kārlis Mīlenbahs’ “Dictionary of the Latvian Language” (Latviešu valodas vārdnīca, published in four volumes 1923–1932) spans some 125,000 entries over 5,480 pages and may be comparable to Samuel Johnson’s work in terms of influence on local culture and depth of scholarship.
Conceived as a Latvian–German dictionary, it includes comparative notes and rich source material, and as such doubles as a still-shot of the Latvian language – meaning that it also casts lights on the mores and thoughts of its speakers – at the turn of the century, with relics from the Indo-European and pan-Baltic past coexisting in the dictionary alongside traces of foreign influences and marks left on the language by socio-cultural processes.
Kārlis Mīlenbahs, a classicist and one of the first Latvian linguists with an academic education, lived during the national awakening when ethnic Latvians enjoyed new emancipatory conditions under Russian bureaucratic and German cultural dominance. Mīlenbahs started the dictionary, which was to become his life’s work, in the 1890s, spending thirty years on this mammoth task; alas, he died before he could finish it, leaving behind a manuscript about two-thirds complete.
The task to give the dictionary its final form fell to another extraordinary linguist, Mīlenbahs’ junior assistant Jānis Endzelīns (1873–1961), incidentally also a classicist. Endzelīns edited the manuscript, wrote the remaining part, as well as added etymological information and arranged publication. Endzelīns would later collaborate with Edīte Hauzenberga (1901–1983) in writing two extra volumes of revisions and additions that would finally see the dictionary completed in 1946.
Mīlenbahs was a school teacher at the town of Talsi, western Latvia at the time he started working on the “Dictionary of the Latvian Language”. He obtained a classics degree from Tartu University and continued working as a teacher also in Jelgava, central Latvia, and later in the Latvian capital, Rīga.
His initial goal was a modest one: expanding an earlier Latvian–German dictionary authored by Baltic German preacher Karl Christian Ulmann (1793–1871). But he soon found that a much more extensive undertaking would be needed to set down the riches of the Latvian language on page. Furthermore, Mīlenbahs wanted to substantially expand the scope of the dictionary.
Each entry includes a German translation, notes on etymology, as well as oral and written sources illustrating meaning in context. The “Dictionary of the Latvian Language” draws from earlier dictionaries, folklore, literary works, idioms, sayings and more. International and newly-crafted words were purposely not included so as to keep it more compact and strictly Latvian.
The task grew larger as the years were passing. In 1911 Mīlenbahs wrote: “The security that the dictionary so badly needs will only be obtained if we find people from all corners explaining, writing down and submitting less-known words not found in dictionaries.” People from all the regions of what would become Latvia responded to his call and submitted new entries for the dictionary. Mīlenbahs had even envisioned an approbation system – he wanted to enlist volunteers’ help in correcting the dictionary at 40 stations across Latvia, but that was not to pass as in 1916 he died fleeing the war.
In 1921 Jānis Endzelīns was hired by the Education Ministry to finish the dictionary. He had been tied to the dictionary’s fate for many years, having spent summers with Mīlenbahs at the turn of the century to research Latvian dialects. During this time Endzelīns and Mīlenbahs also led debate over the dictionary’s structure and the principles governing which words are to be adopted to the dictionary. Endzelīns, too, called for public involvement and the later volumes would include many more new words.
Today’s readers will find common words in the dictionary existing side-by-side with the words lost to oblivion. In addition to serving as inspiration for the literati and others working with the language, it is still the go-to Latvian source in Indo-European studies.
A “Dictionary of the Latvian Language” remains an excellent contribution to our knowledge of the local language and culture, nested neatly at the core of Latvian literary culture alongside Krišjānis Barons’ (1832–1923) collection of Latvju dainas, the Latvian folk songs, also included in the Latvian Culture Canon.
A “Dictionary of the Latvian Language” is available digitally on tezaurs.lv.
Raimonds Briedis on Kārlis Mīlesbahs' "Latvian Language Dictionary" in the Latvian Culture Canon, 2008. (in Latvian)
K. Mülenbacha Latviešu valodas vārdnīca. I. sējums. (1923). Rediģējis, papildinājis, turpinājis J. Endzelīns. Rīga: Izglītības un zinātnes ministrija. (in Latvian)
K. Mülenbacha Latviešu valodas vārdnīca. II. sējums. (1925). Rediģējis, papildinājis, turpinājis J. Endzelīns. Rīga: Izglītības un zinātnes ministrija. (in Latvian)
K. Mülenbacha Latviešu valodas vārdnīca. III. sējums. (1927). Rediģējis, papildinājis, turpinājis J. Endzelīns. Rīga: Izglītības un zinātnes ministrija. (in Latvian)
K. Mülenbacha Latviešu valodas vārdnīca. IV. sējums. (1929). Rediģējis, papildinājis, turpinājis J. Endzelīns. Rīga: Izglītības un zinātnes ministrija. (in Latvian)
Raimonds Briedis on Kārlis Mīlesbahs' "Latvian Language Dictionary" in the Latvian Culture Canon, 2008.