Jack Thiessen.  Mennonite Low German Dictionary: Mennonitisch-Plattdeutsches Wörterbuch.
Madison, WI: Max Kade Institute for German-American Studies, 2003.

(Review by Dr. John Considine)

The publication of Jack Thiessen's Mennonite Low German Dictionary will, I believe, make it apparent to a wider readership than ever before that Thiessen is one of the most excitingly talented lexicographers alive today. In the following review, I shall try to explain that claim, discussing the distinctive features of the new dictionary in two contexts: that of Thiessen's previous work, and that of other studies of Plautdietsch and related language varieties. I should at once make it clear that I come to the dictionary with experience as a lexicographer and as an historian of lexicography, but without native-speaker knowledge of Plautdietsch. As James Urry has remarked à propos of Mennonite studies, the perspective of an outsider has its own value; but the outsider should admit, too, that there are things to which she or he is inevitably blind, and I encourage readers of this review to be aware of the gaps which my discussion is bound to leave.

Jack Thiessen has been working on his native language, Plautdietsch, since the 1950s, when he began a doctorate on its vocabulary, with special attention to its roots in the dialect geography of Prussia, at the University of Marburg in what was then West Germany. This was completed in 1961 and published two years later. In 1977, his studies resulted in a first wordlist of seventy double-column pages, published as a slim paperback with the title Mennonite Low-German Dictionary / Mennonitisches Wörterbuch. The wordlist was prefaced with a foreword in High German by the Canadian Mennonite historian Victor Peters and a short historical introduction, also in High German, by Erhard Riemann, then professor at Kiel and editor of a great historical dictionary of Prussian dialect words, which will be discussed further below. It was symbolically appropriate that Thiessen's own introduction to the dictionary should appear between these two, for the whole dictionary was a publication balanced between the tasks of recording a Canadian Mennonite linguistic heritage and contributing to German dialectology. This balance can be seen in its publication history: the publisher was Elwert of Marburg, but the costs of publication were supported by a grant from the philanthropist John J. Klassen of Winnipeg. It can be seen, too, in the physical form of Thiessen's entries, in which Plautdietsch words are explained first in High German and then in English, and in that of his introduction, which has High German and English in parallel columns. The introduction begins with a programmatic statement which underscores all of Thiessen's life's work:

As opposed to widely spread opinion and prejudice, every dialect is the more original form of a high or standard language and is not a pejorative or contaminated form of a standard language -- as one can often hear in Mennonite circles.

Thiessen's statement is of course absolutely true, but it still needs to be made today. There are still people who believe that one language is better than another, or that one language variety is better than another, and the word dialect is sometimes used by such people to mean an inferior variety of a given language (the word is properly applied to any variety of a language, and expecially to geographically determined varieties). It is more than half a century since the Yiddish-speaking sociolinguist Max Weinreich observed in print that "A shprakh iz a diyalekt mit an armey un a flot" ("a language is a dialect with an army and a navy"), but the lesson of that aphorism has not yet been learnt. There are, for instance, speakers of English who regard Scots as a dialect of, and therefore a deviant form of, English, suitable at best for making dialect jokes and poems about farm life; there may even be speakers of Plautdietsch who feel that their native tongue is "only a dialect," or "not the best kind of German." Thiessen reminds readers of his new dictionary, and has been arguing for many years, that the standard languages of today derive from language varieties which can only be called dialects: that, to quote a recent personal communication of his, "the dialect is the mother of all languages."

The 70-page dictionary which Thiessen published in 1977 was never meant to be comprehensive. As early as 1983, he referred in print to an enlarged version which he hoped to publish in the near future. What finally appeared was a paperback dictionary of 518 double-column pages, the Mennonitisch-Plautdeutsches Wörterbuch / Mennonite Low German Dictionary, published under the auspices of the Hanover Steinbach Historical Society in 1999. Although this dictionary was never very easily available (so, for instance, only five of the academic libraries whose holdings are accessible through the WorldCat database hold copies, while fifty-three hold copies of the 1977 dictionary), it was greatly admired by some readers within and outside the Plautdietsch-speaking community -- Rudy Wiebe used and cited it as a source in the writing of Sweeter than all the World -- and the Hanover Steinbach Historical Society are to be congratulated on the courage and ambition with which they made a major work of scholarship available as a book. I have written on the 1999 dictionary at some length elsewhere (in an essay published in the collection Refractions of Germany in Canadian Literature and Culture in 2003), and wish only to comment on a few of its most important features here.

Like the 1977 dictionary, the 1999 one defined Plautdietsch words first in High German and then in English. It omitted the phonetic transcriptions which were a feature of its predecessor, and it omitted the original introductory material, but in other respects, it built markedly on what Thiessen had achieved in 1977. There were three major changes. First, the new introductory material introduced in 1999 included a fine short essay by Victor Peters (who did not live to see the publication of the dictionary), and also sketched the background of Plautdietsch among the Germanic languages in particular and the Indo-European group in general, and gave some guidance as to Plautdietsch morphology and orthography. Second, the wordlist was increased more than fivefold, from about 2 400 headwords to 13 000 or more. Third, the treatment of some headwords was enriched by, as Thiessen noted in his introduction, "adages, aphorisms, children's rhymes, ditties, moralisms, maxims, and peasant wisdoms." These were provided generously, with Thiessen's own deft translations into High German and English. One or two entries got a little out of hand as a result, most notably that for bernsteen "amber," which ran in its bilingual form to just over six columns, but the general effect of the introduction of this cultural material was to show Plautdietsch as a language which animated the lives of its speakers at an intimate and fundamental level. This makes the dictionary immensely seductive reading: one can hardly open it without finding a vignette of traditional life such as the note on Kroeger clocks at Tjräajasch Klock or the explanation of Spatj mäte, "literally: to measure bacon. At pig-killing time the host provided brandy or strong alcohol. Each guest was, by tradition, permitted to drink as much from the bottle as corresponded with the thickness of the bacon." These are by no means confined to the bright side of life: at vebaune "to ban, banish, ostracize," the entry notes that "since roughly one-third of all Mennonite men were dragged off to Siberia during the Stalin era, this verb assumed special significance in Mennonite thinking and determined the mind set of the entire community," a point which is repeated at the entry for veschlape, "to drag away and misplace; to abduct or deport."

The new Mennonite Low German Dictionary / Mennonitisch-Plattdeutsches Wörterbuch (MLGD) is much closer to the Mennonitisch-Plautdeutsches Wörterbuch of 1999 than that dictionary was to the Mennonite Low-German Dictionary of 1977. It is a hardback, professionally typeset, so that when it is placed side by side with its immediate predecessor, it looks much more substantial and handsome. Its page count, 520 pages, is almost identical with that of the previous volume, but it includes a whole new section, an English-Plautdietsch glossary of some 16 500 entries. This makes the dictionary a much readier guide into Plautdietsch-speaking life than before. The Anglophone reader (Mennonite or not) can now determine readily what the Plautdietsch word for, let us say, ne'er-do-well is without going through the awkward business of identifying a High German translation, working out what the Plautdietsch equivalent of that High German word might be, and then searching for it: in fact, ne'er-do-well is given three equivalents, Trottel, Schledonz, and Lauzhoah. It should then be possible to search for the connotations of each in the Plautdietsch-English section, although here inconsistencies are apparent. Trottel is registered as "an insignificant joker, a ne'er do well," which is clear and helpful. Schledonz, though, is not to be found, although a Schleboak is "an ungainly dunce"; finally, a Lauzhua (note the variation in spelling) is a "flabby-eared individual, dimwit." Sometimes, the English-Plautdietsch section seems to be written with the Plautdietsch-speaker in mind rather than the Anglophone, as in the entry for Eaton's:

Eaton's n. daut jratzte Stuah enn Winnipeg too eene Tiet: Manitoba Mennoniete koffte meist hundat Joah bie Eaton's enn, ooda bestalde äahre Woah vom Eaton's Katalooh. ... Wann se enjekofft haude, troff sijch de gaunze Schwitt, von aule Jemeendesrejchtunge bie Eatons em Waiting Room. Doa kunn eena omsonst sette enn spezeare. ... Eatons Waiting Room wea ekomenischa aus de mennische Tjoatje. Daut Stua spetzt aune 1999 üt. (Eaton's, noun. The biggest store in Winnipeg at one time: Manitoba Mennonites shopped at Eaton's for nearly a hundred years, or ordered their goods from Eaton's catalogue ... When they had done their shopping, the whole lot of them, of every denominational variety, met up in the Waiting Room at Eaton's. There one could sit and converse amiably, free of charge ... Eaton's Waiting Room was more ecumenical than the Mennonite churches. The store closed down in 1999.)

This is a lovely sketch for those who can read it (and good practice for those whose Plautdietsch is shaky), but there is no equivalent given in any other language. Likewise, tracing relatives occasions some remarks in untranslated Plautdietsch on this important Mennonite pursuit (though these begin with the words Frindschauft nofädme, and the entry for nofädme in the main section of the dictionary is illuminating), and Limerick is illustrated by two cleverly crafted Plautdietsch limericks, but no concessions are made to those who cannot read them easily. This does not affect the general point that the English-Plautdietsch glossary is a feature of the MLGD which all users will welcome, and all the more so for the places where Thiessen's characteristic voice is to be heard in it sharing an aphorism -- "mushroom n. Pilztje. all mushrooms are edible, some only once; aule Pilztje send ätboa, maunche mau eemol" -- or a choice colloquialism -- "transmission n. Jedriew, Jedriewvesata. someone shat in his transmission (said of a crazy person) dem haft wea em Jedriew jeschäte, meend hee ess daumlijch."

Apart from this new section, the MLGD refines rather than revolutionizing its predecessor. The initial material is now given only in English, although definitions are still in High German as well as English, and Peters's foreword is not reprinted, which is a pity, since it is worth the reading. The wordlist is not extensively changed, though there are certainly a number of additions (e.g. priejlarie "fistfight, donnybrook"). Although some definitions have been sharpened up or extended, so that for instance Tjnajcht has had "hired hand" added to "servant (male)" and Priejel has had "2. stick, club, cudgel. 3. penis" added to the original "a flogging, thrashing," these changes are generally unobtrusive. They affect perhaps one entry in twenty-five, or a total of something over five hundred entries. There are typographical improvements which make the dictionary easier to use, and the longest supplementary materials, such as the article on amber and some of the songs, are now placed in a "literary appendix." There are orthographical changes, some of which eradicate inconsistencies (I am grateful to Al Reimer for drawing my attention to these, on which he is infinitely better qualified to comment than me), although the initial statement of orthographical principles is unchanged since 1999.

A bald statement of the word count and format of a given dictionary is sometimes less revealing than a comparison of its achievement with other dictionaries. I would now like to turn to such a comparison, which will bring out some of the features of the MLGD better than an uncontextualized assessment could.

In the course of Thiessen's lexicographical career, he has often tilled a lonely furrow, but he has not been altogether isolated. Another lexicographer of Plautdietsch, Herman Rempel, produced his first dictionary in 1979, a volume of 225 pages published as Waed Buiak: Low German to English Dictionary. A revised edition (for which Al Reimer served as consulting editor) was published by the Mennonite Literary Society as Kjenn jie noch Plautdietsch?: a Mennonite Low German Dictionary in 1984, followed by a second revised edition in 1995, which is conveniently available online at www.mennolink.org/doc/lg. Thiessen points out in his introductory material that Rempel's work has been "consulted, and, in part, incorporated here." It should perhaps be pointed out that the extensive use of earlier dictionaries is standard lexicographical practice, and also that Thiessen's definitions are on a different scale to Rempel's. So, to take a characteristic example, the word Magritsch is simply glossed "mortgage" in the online version of Rempel (s.v. Magridzh). Thiessen offers three senses:

1. Gratuity upon conclusion of a sale, gratuity after a cattle sale 2. Gratuity paid to workers upon conclusion of the harvest 3. A payment rendered by a suitor before he was allowed to visit the apple of his eye in a neighbouring village. If he resisted, he could expect a drubbing from the village boys.

No other dictionary of Plautdietsch as it is spoken in Canada has, to my knowledge, appeared, but some very substantial work has been done on the lexicography of varieties of Low German in Europe. This belongs to a long and honourable tradition of German dialect study; as early as 1582, Nathan Chytraeus (Kochhafe) of Rostock made an important dictionary of Low German which emphasized the parity and complementarity of Low and High German , and in the middle of the eighteenth century, the lexicography of individual dialects began with Michael Richey's Hamburgisches Idioticon of 1743, which was followed by Johann George Bock's Idioticon Prussicum of 1759. Thiessen notes his indebtedness to two dictionaries in this European tradition in particular: Renate Herrmann-Winter's one-volume dictionary of the Plattdeutsch of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (1986), and the great Preussisches Wörterbuch (1974- ), henceforth PrWb.

The latter of these calls for our attention here, because Thiessen acknowledges its fundamental importance to his own work. "The project began," he states in his acknowledgements, "in the archives of the Prussian Dictionary at the University of Kiel, which served as its model." Of the PrWb, he says in his note on the dictionaries he has used that it is "the most valuable dialect dictionary not only for research in Mennonite Low German dialectology but also in setting a standard for the way dictionaries ought to be compiled." And he acknowledges the help of two directors of the Prussian Language Archives at Kiel, Ulrich Tolksdorf and Reinhard Goltz, saying of the former that he was "a man of exemplary professionalism, rare expertise, and unique Menschlichkeit whose spirit gave my love wings while I compiled the vocabulary." So, what is the PrWb? The answer is that it is a major dictionary, sponsored by the Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur in Mainz, which will run to six volumes. Volumes 2-6 (Fi-Z) are complete, and volume 1 is appearing in fascicles, of which eight have been published at the time of writing (A-Bulle), while the last three (bullebarsch-feurig) are at an advanced stage in their progress towards completion. It is based on more than completed 20 000 questionnaires and a wide range of printed material; as far as I know, Thiessen has been too modest to point out that the printed sources on which the editors of the great Prussian dictionary have drawn repeatedly include both of the earlier editions of his own dictionary. The present PrWb was founded in 1952; its immediate predecessor, undertaken by Walther Ziesemer in 1911, had been published in Königsberg, in fascicles covering the range A-Fingernagel, from 1935 to 1944, after which Königsberg was invaded and the materials for the dictionary apparently destroyed. The first editor of the new Preussisches Wörterbuch, the Professor Riemann who wrote the historical introduction to Thiessen's dictionary of 1977, had worked under Ziesemer on the old one, as had 47 of the 376 active informants and assistants contributing on the project by 1954, so there was human continuity between the two projects. This continuity explains the decision to begin the new dictionary at Fi-, where the old one had broken off: we may see the fascicles which will appear in 2004 as the culmination either of a fifty-two-year project or of a ninety-three-year one. In either case, there is a clear and striking contrast between the PrWb and Thiessen's MLGD. The one has received extensive official sponsorship, and has been the product of a team of hundreds, working over more than half a century. The other has been the work of a single indomitable scholar, dividing his time between lexicography, a significant body of creative writing, a career as professor of German at the University of Winnipeg, and a heavy burden of public service. Samuel Johnson once remarked with satisfaction that the French Academy had taken fifty years to produce their dictionary as a collaborative project and he had taken seven to produce his on his own; Jack Thiessen is the Samuel Johnson of Plautdietsch.

This point bears elaboration. No lexicographer works alone, and Thiessen's acknowledgements begin with the reminder that "Innumerable Mennonites accompanied this venture" before going on to single out Al Reimer's "passionate interest, conscientiousness, and expertise." But Thiessen has worked more alone than did Samuel Johnson, who had a team of paid assistants, and was funded by the consortium who published the Dictionary of the English Language. The MLGD has been as nearly a single-author dictionary as can be imagined. Such dictionaries are still made, although they are rarer than they used to be: T. P. Dolan's Dictionary of Hiberno-English (1998), which lists the distinctively Irish words in the English language, comes to mind, as does Jeffrey Heath's Nunggubuyu Dictionary (1982), which offers a comprehensive list of the vocabulary of an aboriginal language of northern Australia. But neither of these excellent dictionaries has the scale of the MLGD: Dolan had no intention of documenting all the English of Ireland, and Heath's intention was to provide a wordlist rather than a broad range of information about the cultural associations of given words. Thiessen has been exceptional among the makers of single-author dictionaries in his double pursuit of lexical comprehensiveness and cultural depth.

Because Thiessen identifies the PrWb as a model of lexicographical procedure, it is worth looking more closely at its strengths, and comparing them with those of the MLGD, bearing in mind all the while the necessary difference between the work of a single independent lexicographer and a large academy-sponsored team. First, the PrWb is rich in information about the localization of words within Prussia, conveyed either by abbreviations -- Wopp, a technical term for part of a fishing net, is labelled "EL-Ka Li," i.e. from Kahlberg and Liep in Kreis Elbing -- or in some cases by dialect maps, as in the case of Wonze "facial hair," where the distribution of four variant forms such as wuntsi (generally south-eastern, but attested as far west as the valley of the river Weichsel) is plotted. The original localization of Plautdietsch words was studied by Thiessen in his dissertation, but is not commented on regularly in the MLGD. Nor, on the whole, is their current localization, although e.g. woo schient'et? and woo schient daut? are identified as "the most common term of greeting of Mennonites in the West Reserve," Schenelleborscht "a thrashing, usually with a wet rope" as a "term used on the Forstei in Russia," and the entry for Eenijchtjeit notes that "Mexican Mennonites use Eenijchtjeit for Communion or the Lord's Supper." This limitation of the MLGD is unsurprising in a dictionary based very largely on personal expertise rather than on systematic dialect survey.

So is another of its limitations which can be seen by comparison with the PrWb. The latter documents its sources very thoroughly. Wopp is, the PrWb notes, attested only in the Elbinger Jahrbuch for 1938; Woppe is identified as appearing in Thiessen's dictionary of 1977, and in Herman Rempel's dictionary, and in Heinrich Klassen's Mundart und plautdietsche Jeschichte of 1993; for a well-documented word like Wonze, 240 years' worth of sources are listed meticulously, from Bock's Idioticon to Klassen, Thiessen, and Rempel. The MLGD makes no attempt to do this -- again, this is in the nature of a single-author dictionary which privileges living speech above written texts.

There is a third respect in which the PrWb differs from the MLGD: it is illustrated. This is an attractive feature: at the entry Wursthorn "instrument for stuffing sausages," the reader who has difficulty visualizing the tool can see a drawing of two varieties thereof; Tolltafel "wooden tablet with magical inscription" is accompanied by a clear photograph of two specimens; Zingeln "method of nailing planks together" is illustrated by a photograph and two diagrams. The question of whether to illustrate dictionaries is not a simple one: sometimes it makes for clarity, but it may be argued that a dictionary is a list of words, whose sense is a matter of their relationship with other words, rather than an encyclopedia of things.

The provision of illustrations in the PrWb is related to one of its most important features: its breadth as a cultural record. Here, Erhard Riemann's comments on the vision of Walther Ziesemer in the introductory fascicle of PrWb not only sum up the outlook of the old Prussian dictionary but that of the new, and hence present the lexicographical tradition in which Thiessen has consciously placed himself:

Ziesemer hatte die Vorstellung, daß sein Wörterbuch kein totes Glossar, keine trockene Aneinanderreihung von Wörtern sein sollte. Er wollte die Volkssprache in all ihrem Reichtum zur Darstellung bringen. Jedes Wort sollte in seinen vielfältigen Ausdrucksmöglichkeiten und Bedeutungsschattierungen gezeigt werden, in Redensarten und Sprichwörtern, im Zusammenhang mit Volksglauben und Brauchtum. In jedem Wort sollte sich das Denken und Fühlen des Volkes widerspiegeln, sein Humor, seine Einstellung zum Leben. (Ziesemer's conception was that the dictionary should not be a lifeless glossary, a dessicated series of words. He wanted to represent the speech of the people in all its richness. Every word should be set forth in all its manifold phraseological potential and shades of meaning, in sayings and proverbs, in connection with popular beliefs and customs. In every word, the thought and experience of the people should be reflected, their humour, their outlook on life.)

This emphasis on the language as a means to understanding the thought and experience of the whole Gemeinschaft of those who speak it is, as we have already seen, one of the strongest characteristics of the MLGD, and it is what makes the PrWb and the MLGD fundamentally similar. It places them, by the way, in a tradition of German lexicography going back to Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, whose work on language and folklore clearly anticipates Ziesemer and Thiessen's breadth of interests: Riemann's emphasis on the fact that Walther Ziesemer wanted to produce a dictionary which was not desiccated echoes Jacob Grimm's observation that the first real dictionary of German (Josua Maaler's of 1561) was the first to get away from the trockenheit, the desiccation, of its predecessors.

Placing Thiessen's lexicographical work in a tradition whose programmatic motto is "against dryness" takes us to its heart. There are inconsistencies in the MLGD; there are points which native speakers of Plautdietsch will surely want to challenge and supplement. As a couple of small examples of the latter, Thiessen has already remarked that a future edition should include Grunzkujel "complainer" and utmoarache "to take a royal crap," and although Schneedien "snowbank" is in, a colleague of mine (Stephen Reimer, to whom I am grateful) remembers a verb schneediene "to drive through deep snow (characteristically done by young men seeking to impress their passengers)," and that verb is not registered. None of this matters much. All dictionaries have inconsistencies and omissions. What is really important about the MLGD is that it is a dictionary which triumphantly rejects dryness.

"Against dryness" is a good motto for lexicographers, but it is of course not my own form of words: forty years ago, Iris Murdoch made it the title of a famous essay in which she argued for a particular kind of richness and moral intelligence in the writing of the novel, and claimed that "literature has taken over some of the tasks formerly performed by philosophy." Jack Thiessen's work in this dictionary -- his verbal craftsmanship, his idiosyncracy, his generous, thoughtful, affectionate survey of every detail of a whole way of life -- makes this a dictionary which performs tasks more often performed by creative writing and by cultural history. It is, as some of the best creative and historical writing may be, a brilliant summary of a whole heritage, but it is more than that too, for it is also a statement of the continuing life of Plautdietsch. Murdoch argued in "Against Dryness" that the novel should be "a fit house for free characters to live in," and Thiessen, although every page of his dictionary is impressed with his wit and Menschlichkeit, is speaking on every page for a whole community of free dwellers in the language, the fellowship of users of Plautdietsch, the "countless voices of the past and present" which he acknowledged in the introduction to his dictionary of 1977. That extraordinary balance between personal creativity and speaking for a community makes Thiessen's Mennonite Low German Dictionary, in my opinion, one of the most remarkable dictionaries of recent years, a book which everyone with the slightest interest in Mennonite culture should surely own, but which also deserves to be recognized as a classic of language study and of cultural description by a much wider readership.