Wittgenstein’s Dictionary for Elementary Schools

“Only a dictionary makes it possible to hold the student completely responsible”

by Désirée Weber

From the fall of 1920 until spring 1926, Ludwig Wittgenstein was as an elementary school teacher in the small, isolated villages of Trattenbach, Puchberg am Schneeberg, and Otterthal in Lower Austria. He was responsible for teaching his students in grades 4 through 6 all subjects, ranging from writing to mathematics, from science to music. He had renounced his significant inheritance a few years earlier and so Wittgenstein lived an ascetic life – an “entirely rural affair” as he described it.

The (renamed) Wittgenstein Schule in Trattenbach, Lower Austria. © Désirée Weber
The school in Otterthal in which Wittgenstein taught from 1925-1926, © Désirée Weber

During this time, he produced the second of only two works that were published in his lifetime. Throughout 1925, he worked on producing a small dictionary of German words for his students, which would turn out to be the Wörterbuch für Volksschulen [Dictionary for Elementary Schools]. This volume of 42 pages and nearly 6,000 word entries was meant to fill a pedagogic need for his students, but the Preface that Wittgenstein wrote also indicates his keen interest in how his students were learning the use of words and their spelling. In the spring of 1926, after a particularly harrowing corporal punishment incident in which Wittgenstein struck a student which led the student to collapse, he abruptly abandoned his teaching career and moved back to Vienna.

The Wörterbuch remains not just as an artifact of Wittgenstein’s time teaching, but an artifact that gives insight into his thinking about language during the years that he had all but given up doing philosophy as he had done it at Cambridge. His goal was to give his students a resource of word usage that they would be familiar with and which would put the responsibility for their use on their shoulders: “Only a dictionary makes it possible to hold the student completely responsible … because it furnishes him with reliable measures for finding and correcting his mistakes…. It is, however, absolutely necessary that the student corrects his compositions on his own. He should feel that he is the only author of his work and he alone should be responsible for it” (Preface, p. 15). Wittgenstein’s Wörterbuch thus served a clear purpose in his teaching method, but also points to his careful contemplation of how one becomes a member of a language-using community and the responsibility that this carries.

Wittgenstein also stressed the importance of his decision to include words used in Austria and in the local dialect over and above foreign words. Many words that relate to the alpine terrain, common occupations in the region at that time and colloquial descriptions of people (even including insults) appear in the book. One such example is “Sennerin” (alpine shepherdess) which not only refers to a common, geographically-specific occupation, but is also a word used specifically in Austria that is much less often in other German-speaking regions (where “Almenhirtin” would be used). There are several other examples where he included the Austrian word instead of the word more commonly used in High German: these include “Ribisel” (red currant) instead of “Johannisbeere” “Paradeisapfel” (tomato) instead of “Tomate” and “bähen” (baking or toasting) instead of “backen”. Sometimes Wittgenstein also included the regional or dialect variation in addition to the proper German. One example here is the entry for the word squirrel which reads: “das Eichhörnchen, Eichkätzchen.”After the widely used proper German word, this entry includes the regional variation “Eichkätzchen” (which translates to oak kitten).

The landscape in lower Austria in which Wittgenstein taught, © Désirée Weber

Some words are evidence of Wittgenstein’s attention and sensitivity to the regional context of a word’s usage in another way: a few words refer to specific social practices that were common in rural Austria (but few other places) during his time there. One of those entries is “Schnaderhüpfel”: an improvised spoken word performance that consists of at least two singers or speakers who take turns addressing 4-line stanzas to each other. The content is often celebratory, comical, or insulting. Well-known musical refrains accompany the speakers and they are performed at gatherings or celebrations; they have been analogized to the Alpine version of modern rap battles – and are today making a return in Austria. In entries like these, Wittgenstein captured not only the specificity of the rural Austrian dialect that his students were familiar with, but also words that pertained to cultural practices that were part of their community and with which they would have been well-acquainted.

Evidence for Wittgenstein’s care in constructing the Wörterbuch can also be found in a series of proof pages which contain copy-editing notes and other hints about the publication process. These little-known documents reveal not just the choices that were made about word entries, but also the Wörterbuch manuscript’s connection to the K.u.K. Hof & Universitätsdruckerei and how it made its way through the editorial offices of Hölder-Pichler-Tempsky under the editorial direction of Adolf Holzhausen. One further manuscript – a student-made word book from 1923/1924 – indicates that Wittgenstein setting out to produce a dictionary came at the heels of him leading his students in a similar exercise in class.

First page of a corrected proof page of the Wörterbuch. © Martin J. Gross Family Foundation, produced here by their kind permission.

The Wörterbuch and the virtually unknown manuscripts related to it will shortly be made available on the Wittgenstein Source online archive. Additionally, the Wörterbuch will be published by Badlands Unlimited  in June 2020 and will for the first time include an English translation.


Désirée Weber is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at the College of Wooster. She researches and writes about political theory and the impact of language on politics with a special focus on Ludwig Wittgenstein’s later works. She is working on a forthcoming book about the role of teaching and learning in Wittgenstein’s biography and later work – and the implications for understanding our capacity to make meaning and judgments about meaning. She has also extensively researched Wittgenstein’s Wörterbuch für Volksschulen and related manuscripts and documents.