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.
"He gives the impression of being an absent-minded professor," says Charles Klotzer, founder of the St. Louis Journalism Review, who sold the IBM typesetter to Masthay. "He's otherworldly, in a way."
Costa tells of a long correspondence he had with Masthay several years ago that's become famous among linguists. Costa and Masthay had different opinions about the etymology of the word kaskaskia; Masthay said it descended from the Illinois word for "cicada," but Costa insisted it came from the Illinois for "katydid."
"It seems silly if you're not a linguist," Costa says. "We were sending letters back and forth, and the climax of it was that he sent me a package with a plastic bag in it, and inside the plastic bag was a glass vial, sealed, with a katydid inside. He included a long letter in red, blue and black ink that went into minute detail about why he thought kaskaskia meant 'cicada.' But I never fully understood what the bug in the jar had to do with what he was attempting to convince me of. He'd obviously gone out and caught it himself. I don't know where else he'd get a dead katydid. I told some members of the Miami tribe about it, and they think he's funny. They view him as a crazy white guy."
Masthay was born in rural Connecticut, in 1941, to Polish-immigrant parents. He grew up on 60 acres of land, dividing his free time between roaming the nearby woods and doing science experiments. He was fascinated by dinosaurs and even more intrigued by their long Greek and Latin names. He wanted to know what the names meant, but more than that he wanted to get inside the words and find out how they worked. In high school, he took French and started learning classical Greek on his own, his first significant effort at autodidacticism.
"I made a real effort to learn this, while my brothers and their friends were out partying, dating, screwing girls," Masthay says. "In some ways, languages have been my girlfriend -- and I study the shit out of them."
His first girlfriend, during his senior year of high school, was German, so he learned that language, too. He studied French and biology at Northern Michigan University, giving up his intention to become, like his older brothers, a scientist. He learned Chinese in the Air Force and picked up some Japanese when he was stationed on Okinawa in the early 1960s.
Several years after moving to the Midwest, he became interested in the native languages here. After twelve years of futile searches for remnants of the Kaskaskian language (a dialect of Illinois, itself a subset of the larger Algonquian group), he finally heard, in 1989, about a Jesuit priest named Jacques Gravier who had compiled a Kaskaskia dictionary. Masthay found the earliest manuscript of the dictionary in the library of Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. By 1991, he had a microfilm copy of the manuscript and was starting work to prepare it for publication, spending hours in his backyard shed every day, straining his eyes through a microscope to make out the 300-year-old handwriting.
He painstakingly transcribed the original on the IBM machine, then added commentary and explanatory notes at the front. He also compiled a list of biblical allusions, surprising phrases, superstitions and dirty words (such as the classic nipeiarakihechinto, or "may your genitals be filled with shit"). Costa, whose book The Miami-Illinois Language was published in January, provided a brief overview of the larger Illinois language.
For his next project, Masthay says, he's going to start looking into the native language of the former Soviet republic of Georgia. He recently met a Georgian woman, which prompted him to look back into a language he spent a few months learning back in the 1970s. He's in no hurry to dig too deeply into anything right now, though.
"I spent twelve years, every single day except vacation days, on it," Masthay says, "anywhere from one to twelve hours. Some people said, 'That's madness.' But I didn't feel mad. But it started distorting me. I was at a restaurant talking to some of my fellow Mensa members, and I said, 'What's the name of this thing we're sitting at?' They said, 'Umm, that's a table.'
"I knew when I was finished I'd just sit and stare into nothing for a long time."