There are an estimated 7,000 languages in the world today, a majority of which originated with Indigenous people. Many of these are only spoken, not written, and they have no dictionaries. Because of forced assimilation, relocation and other factors involving Native people, most of these languages are on the verge of dying out.
Marie Wilcox sought to save one of them, Wukchumni. Her task was all the more urgent because she was the only person on Earth to speak it fluently. She created a dictionary so that the language would live on. As her New York Times obituary recounts:
Within short order, many family members started learning Wukchumni. And other Native American tribes were inspired by her story to revitalize their own disappearing languages.
Madeline Kripke did not, like Ms. Wilcox, create a dictionary. But she kept one of the world’s largest collections of them.
Beginning with the Webster’s Collegiate that her parents gave her in the fifth grade, she accumulated an estimated 20,000 volumes as diverse as a Latin dictionary printed in 1502, Jonathan Swift’s 1722 booklet titled “The Benefits of Farting Explained,” and the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s 1980 guide to pickpocket slang.
Her New York Times obituary pays homage to her pursuit:
One question that none of Ms. Kripke’s reference books answers is what will happen to her collection. After avoiding eviction in the mid-1990s by agreeing to remove the volumes stacked in the hallway, she had hoped to transfer the whole enchilada [slang for the entirety] from her apartment and three warehouses to a university or, if she had her druthers [n., preference], to install it in her own dictionary library, which she never got to build.
Happily, the matter has been resolved, and the whole enchilada lives on as the Kripke Collection.