Wolf Leslau
Wolf Leslau in 2004, speaking in San Diego to the 32nd North American Conference on Afroasiatic Linguistics.
Wolf Leslau

(1906-11-14)14 November 1906
Died18 November 2006(2006-11-18) (aged 100)

Wolf Leslau (Yiddish: וולף לסלאו; born November 14, 1906, in Krzepice, Vistula Land, Poland; died November 18, 2006, in Fullerton, California) was a scholar of Semitic languages and one of the foremost authorities on Semitic languages of Ethiopia.

Youth and education

Leslau was born in Krzepice, a small town near Częstochowa, Poland.[1] When he was a child his family was very poor, and after contracting tuberculosis he usually had to keep a thermometer with him to monitor his body temperature, although the reasons for this are unknown. He was orphaned by the age of 10, and was raised by his brother, and received a yeshiva education.[2]

To avoid military service in the Polish army, he gave up his Polish citizenship (becoming a stateless person) and emigrated to Vienna,[2] where he would engage in Semitic studies at the University of Vienna until 1931.[3] He then went to the Sorbonne to study under Marcel Cohen. His studies included most of the Semitic languages, including Hebrew, Aramaic, Akkadian, Soqotri and Ethiopic.[4]

War years

Leslau was arrested by the French police and sent to an internment camp in the Pyrenees where he spent the harsh winter of 1939-1940 with his wife and child. He was later moved to Camp des Milles, a concentration camp near Aix-en-Provence.[5] However, with the assistance of an international aid group, he escaped with his family before the Nazis took over the camp in 1942.[6]

Escaping to the United States, he later became a naturalized U.S. citizen.[7] He settled in New York City, and received a Guggenheim Fellowship[8] to continue his studies of the Semitic languages in Ethiopia. He traveled throughout the country, recording endangered Ethiopian languages. For one language, Gafat, Leslau was able to locate only four speakers. It became extinct shortly thereafter.

Career in the United States and fieldwork

After teaching at the Asia Institute, the New School for Social Research, and for 4 years at Brandeis University,[3] he joined the faculty of University of California, Los Angeles in 1955. He was instrumental in establishing the Department of Near Eastern Studies and the Center for Near East Studies.[4]


Leslau specialized in previously unrecorded and unstudied Semitic languages of Ethiopia. His first trip to Ethiopia in 1946 was funded by a Guggenheim fellowship.[3]

South Arabia and Yemen

In 1950, Leslau traveled to South Arabia and Yemen. There he made field recordings at gatherings of South Arabian Bedouins and Yemenite Jews. In 1951, the recordings were issued by Folkways Records as Music of South Arabia in their "ethnic" series, FE-4221. The recordings, as well as Leslau's liner notes, are available for download from Smithsonian Folkways.[9]

Recognitions and retirement

In 1965 Leslau received the Haile Selassie Prize for Ethiopian Studies in Addis Ababa from Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie.[10] He held the position of Professor Emeritus at UCLA until his death at the age of 100. He remained active in research and writing until his death. He learned to use a Macintosh computer at the age of 80.[11]

Leslau died at a nursing home in Fullerton, California, in 2006.[5]

Partial bibliography



  1. ^ "Wolf Leslau, in Memoriam".
  2. ^ a b "Wolf Leslau" (web page). Retrieved 2009-04-07.
  3. ^ a b c "LINGUIST List 17.3470: Obituary: Wolf Leslau, 1906-2006". 24 November 2006. Retrieved 2009-04-07.
  4. ^ a b "Remembering a friend of Ethiopia: Wolf Leslau, 1906-200".
  5. ^ a b Stewart, Jocelyn Y. (November 23, 2006). "Wolf Leslau, 100; UCLA professor sought out and recorded Ethiopian languages - Los Angeles Times". The Los Angeles Times.
  6. ^ Kaye, Alan S. (2007). "Wolf Leslau". Language. 83 (4): 870–875. doi:10.1353/lan.2008.0014. S2CID 210073062.
  7. ^ Guthe, C. E. (1950). International directory of anthropologists. 3rd edition. Washington, D.C.: National research Council. page 108.
  8. ^ "Wolf Leslau - John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation".
  9. ^ "Music of South Arabia".
  10. ^ "The History of Haile Sellassie Prizes for Ethiopian Studies 2. (18-OCT-02) Asia Africa Intelligence Wire". Asia Africa Intelligence Wire. October 18, 2002.
  11. ^ "UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies :: Wolf Leslau and Stanford J. Shaw".

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