Sprachen — Das Fischer Lexikon
Author: Heinz F. Wendt
Publisher: Frankfurt am Main
Date: originally 1961
Pages: 382
Format: PDF
Size: 81.2 MB
Quality: good
Language: German, and many, many more

Sometimes the smallest of actions determines one’s course for decades. As a 17-year-old in a grubby German neighborhood, I bought this book from a library sale, for less than a fistful of Pfennige. For a few years, it became one of my closest companions: held under a pillow, soiled with Hungarian potato stick traces, embellished with some timid formata rather than a happy cursive. Almost immediately, a perennial language obsession was born. Earlier this year, I learned that N. Trunte, a scholar whose work I deeply respect, also encountered this book, with a similar effect. Consider yourselves warned.

Little is known about Wendt, who became the editor for most of Langenscheidt’s languages in the 1950s, after a sheltered bourgeois childhood and confidential translation work during WWII, which protected him against being drafted. Born in 1914 and present in our world until 2006, he was foppish and fastidious in his appearance, seemingly a man without a private life, equally well playing the parts of an office joker and a serious author who wrote two excellent manuals of Greek and Turkish and a dictionary of modern Greek which is still useful, as it consistently includes the aorist stem. His works are out of print, thanks to that mean nanny, the market.

This particular book, in spite of its unprepossessing appearance and the constraining format of a lexicon, is a masterpiece. One can always quibble with the selection of languages, as they inevitably reflect the author’s interests, but even after so many years, this volume remains instructive and breath-taking, showing us how much one single person could learn and teach, long before the internet. From Akzent to Welthilfssprachen, from Armenian to Vietnamese and from Turkish to Swahili, the book includes texts in 30 languages (and glimpses of many more, including the scripts and the phonologies), with IPA, a word-for-word rendering as well as translation into German, followed by a concise, yet accurate description of the main features of each language. If you have the time and the inclination, it might be worth learning German just to read it. Otherwise, the only book similar to it is Lyovin’s beautiful Introduction to the Languages of the World, which also casts its nets widely, with Tibetan, Hawaiian and Dyirbal … and remains in print.

Whether this moment proves to be a mere intermezzo or the finale to an adventure which lasted for some turbulent years, I know I will meet some of you again, in different bazaars, although we will be wearing different masks and speaking slightly different dialects. Here, then, my final prasada to the old crossroads. I have been tempted to dedicate it to Ganesha or Wepwawet, but instead, it goes to Hermes, the patron saint of some of my favorite things.

Enjoy, in peace.

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