Wolf Leslau, 100; UCLA professor sought out and recorded Ethiopian languages

Times Staff Writer

Wolf Leslau, professor emeritus at UCLA and a leading expert on Ethiopian languages and culture, died of natural causes Nov. 18 at a nursing home in Fullerton, said his daughter, Eliane Silverman. He was 100.

Leslau learned to use a computer at 80, and the last of the nearly 50 books that he wrote was published when he was 98. He spoke 17 languages.

A deep connection with his wife, who died in 1998, was “one of the reasons Dr. Leslau has had such a long and fulfilling life; the other was his passion for his work,” Silverman said.

Leslau was born Nov. 14, 1906, in Poland and grew up speaking Yiddish. Later he studied Semitic languages at the University of Vienna, where he met Charlotte Halpern, a student of French literature, whom he later married.


The couple moved to Paris, where Leslau received a doctorate in comparative Semitic linguistics from the Sorbonne.

Early in World War II, Leslau was sent to a concentration camp in France. With the help of an international rescue agency, the family escaped to the United States in 1942 and settled in New York.

In 1946, Leslau made the first of many trips to Ethiopia on a Guggenheim Fellowship. That country, he once said, was his laboratory. Over the years, he trekked to remote villages to study local languages.

“He traveled by mule, drove an ancient Land Rover and rode in kayak-like boats built of reeds,” Silverman said.


Sometimes Leslau had to take his subjects to the local capitals to record the languages, because there was no electricity in the villages. In those villages the linguist sometimes found languages untouched by the world beyond.

“In the older days, groups had no contact outside, so they kept their own dialects and languages,” he told a Times reporter in 1984.

Leslau specialized in the Semitic language group, one of four such groups in Ethiopia. Often there was no written record of the language.

Leslau recorded the spoken word, then determined the structure and grammar of the language and committed it to paper. In a remote village near the Blue Nile he recorded the last four people still using the Gafat language.

In 1955 Leslau and his family moved to Los Angeles, where he began teaching Hebrew and other Semitic languages at UCLA. Three years later he founded the university’s department of Near Eastern and African languages and became its first chairman.

His many honors included the International Haile Selassie Award for Ethiopian Studies in 1965, given by Selassie in recognition of Leslau’s many years of study, and the prestigious Lidzbarski Gold Medal Award from the International Oriental Societies in 1996.

He wrote “The Jews of Ethiopia,” a photo book of images taken between 1946 and 1970.

In addition to Silverman, Leslau is survived by another daughter, Sylvia Grotz of La Mirada.