By Lindsay Toler
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The crowning achievement of a lifetime of amateur scholarship, 1,800 lime-green books packed in boxes, sits against a wall in a Creve Coeur garage. In August, Carl Masthay had 1,960 copies of his Kaskaskia Illinois-to-French Dictionary printed, at fairly exorbitant personal expense, and so far he's sold about 130 copies. Although he's still trying to spread the word, it's safe to say most of the people who need a desktop reference guide to the Kaskaskian dialect -- a language no one's spoken in hundreds of years -- have already shelled out the $30.
A dense book, Masthay's dictionary is 757 pages long, with tiny type and a long, detailed and digressive introductory section. The bulk of the text is an edited transcription of the 300-year-old Gravier manuscript, compiled by Jesuit priests who lived among the Kaskaskia in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries in the area surrounding what became St. Louis. The dictionary's popular appeal, outside Masthay's immediate circle of friends and fellow Mensa members, is limited. Even among scholars who study American Indians it's an obscure book.
For Masthay, though, the dictionary -- more than twelve years in the works -- is a final, monumental validation of the decades he's spent looking into the hidden corners of language. Through his self-financed and often obsessive research, Masthay has marked out a peculiar and far-reaching patch of intellectual territory, becoming something of a local legend in the process for his intelligence and his eccentricities.
Masthay, 62, came to St. Louis in 1967 after a stint in the U.S. Air Force. He enrolled in graduate school at Washington University, working toward a master's degree in Chinese. After a year at Wash. U., he went to work at the Mosby publishing company, editing medical texts. He stayed there 33 years, retiring in January 2002. Outside work, he pursued his other interests: biology, astronomy, entomology, archaeology and, in particular, foreign languages.
"I see languages as tools to understand the universe, to understand other people's cultures," he says, rubbing his temples as he searches for the exact words he wants. "As a kid, I saw them as codes. I want to know what they're holding."
Over the years, Masthay has become a familiar figure on the academic circuit. He counts professors at major universities all over the world as his friends. His living room is cluttered with journals and science magazines, in addition to hundreds of compact discs (mostly world and ethnic music), his own notebooks and photocopied pages of poems, puns and etymologies. He claims fluency in five languages -- French, German, Chinese, Spanish, Russian -- and competence in dozens more, with texts in Russian, Arabic, Chinese and Japanese lining the shelves in his house.
Masthay occupies a nebulous place among professional scholars; he's not quite an equal, but many of them appreciate his efforts and consider him a respected contributor to their fields.
"People cite his work. They trust it enough to cite it," says linguist David J. Costa, who works with Indian tribes to revive dormant languages. "He's not a linguist in the sense that he has a degree in linguistics, but he's a linguist in the sense that he speaks a lot of languages. The consensus seems to be that he's a very reliable editor, a skilled translator, and he's almost insanely meticulous. And when you're preparing a scholarly edition of a 300- or 400-year-old manuscript, that attention to detail is essential." (Masthay would dispute Costa's characterization of his credentials. He says the work he did to transcribe another Indian document, Schmick's Mahican Dictionary, would have been enough to qualify him for a doctorate.)
The new dictionary may, in fact, get more attention than Masthay ever imagined when he first started working on it in 1991. The Gravier manuscript is under serious study by other scholars these days: Leslie Roberts, a professor of French at the University of Southern Indiana, is translating the entire manuscript into English for the Miami tribe, and Masthay's book will also be the subject of a review in two prominent Native American linguistic journals this spring.
Michael McCafferty, a professor of linguistics at Indiana University who co-wrote the upcoming review, says Masthay's dictionary is "a hell of a job." McCafferty is looking forward to Roberts' more authoritative version, but he says he'll keep Masthay's work close at hand.
Some of Masthay's renown, though, comes from his cantankerous, sometimes eccentric and always colorful personality. He's polite and thoughtful but has no patience for idle conversation. He's an unabashed atheist and a skilled pool player. He's been resistant to computer technology, doing most of his work for the dictionary on an enormous and unwieldy twenty-year-old IBM typesetting machine. He hates team sports and what he sees as the intellectual vacuity of most Americans. He's intensely cerebral about romance and family ("I believe there are too many people on Earth anyway. I'm not going to contribute to that -- and I have family members who have already passed on the family's genetic pattern"). One of the first things he does when he meets someone is present a detailed etymology of his or her last name, usually produced from a dictionary of surnames he keeps in his living room. His handwritten letters are famous; Costa says Masthay fills all the space on one side of a sheet of paper, first the main body and then the margins, using different-colored ink for different concepts.