Paul Saagpakk, who has died aged 85, was one of Estonia's greatest linguists. His name is often spoken in the same breath as that of Johannes Aavik, an older contemporary of Saagpakk's who coined hundreds of new Estonian words for what was at that time a limited peasant language. If one of Aavik's aims was to enrich the language, then Saagpakk's, as he often put it, was "to preserve it forever". The medium in which he chose to do it was English.
Saagpakk was born on Saaremaa in 1910 and graduated from Tartu University. Saagpakk was able to study English abroad through the British Council. When Saagpakk started compiling an Estonian-English dictionary in the 1940s, Estonian was unusual in that it lacked a standard reference comparable to Oxford or Webster's. This led Saagpakk to draw upon numerous sources such as the Estonian Encyclopedia, technical books and lexicons of loan-words, resulting in perhaps a richer variety of entries.
While not working on the dictionary, Saagpakk lectured in New Jersey and taught English at the University of Massachusetts while working towards a doctorate at Columbia (dissertation: Psychopaths in Victorian novels.)
In 1954, A-G of the dictionary appeared, but Saagpakk was unsatisfied. A generation of persistent work later it was dwarfed by the 1,200-page complete work, published by Yale University.
It is safe to say even Estonians often use it just for its tables of difficult case endings and grammatical rules.
As with any labor of love, the dictionary bears the signature of its author. As President Meri eulogized him: "All who met him realized instantly that the man had brought back from his fifty-year odyssey all of his infinitely-of-the-islands humanity, humor and criticism."
Saagpakk returned to his home in Saaremaa last year. He died on February 23 having heard the day before that he had been awarded an Order of the State Seal for his lifetime achievement.
The Baltic Independent, March 1-7, 1996
Paul F. Saagpakk, senior Estonian linguist and author of the monumental Estonian-English Dictionary published in l982 by Yale University Press, died on February 23, 1996.
He was born on Sept. 2, 1910, in the Mustjala parish in Saaremaa. He studied in the Saaremaa gymnasium (high school) and at Tartu University, and worked as teacher in Tallinn at the Gustav Adolf high school (and other schools). In l943 he reached Sweden, and in l947 he arrived in the U.S. He was first employed by Uppsala College in East Orange; from l964 to l981 he was professor at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. In l966, Paul Saagpakk defended his doctoral dissertation at Columbia University; the topic was Psychopathological Elements in British Novels from l890 to l930.
In addition to his Estonian-English dictionary, he published a dictionary of synonyms (l992); another dictionary of less known words is in the process of being published.
Paul Saagpakk returned to his native Estonia in l995. He was buried on March 1, 1996, in Mustjala parish, Saaremaa, where he had been born.
This information comes from the weekly paper Kultuurileht No. 8 (2617), March 1, 1996.