Saturday, September 27, 2008

Calvert Watkins "Dictionary of Indo-European Roots"

Throughout history civilized peoples have wondered at the source of their language, looking often to the tongue of a prestigious cultural predecessor as its imagined source. In the Aeneid, Vergil traces the imagined source of Rome to Troy, and the Romans thought it obvious that their tongue was a debased form of Greek. More recent theories, based on a naive notion of Biblical history, trace all the worlds languages to Hebrew. It wasn't until widespread European familiarity with Sanskrit, the ancient liturgical language of India, that the notion became widespread that Greek and Latin, as well as the ancestral dialects of the Celts, Slavs, Germans and others might share some common origin with Sanskrit and other ancient tongues in some source which no longer exists. We now know that what are called the Indo-European languages are the descendants dialects of an ancient language of bronze-age wagon-riding horse and dog domersticating nomads who inhabited the Pontic-Caspian steppe. Known as the Kurgan culture as identified by Marija Gimbutas, this people infiltrated Europe and Central Asia, displacing speakers of tongues such as Etruscan and the ancient relatives of Basque, and interacting with their neighbors who spoke tongues from such separate families as Semitic and Finno-Ugric as well as many more exotic families.

Any who would understand the origins of English, with its own native Germanic word stock, as well as a vocaubulary well supplimented by such languagGes as Latin and Greek would do weel to familiarize themselves with the Indo-European roots of our Language. Calvert Watkins' American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots does that quite admirably. His beautiful and scholarly tome has more facts per inch in its 149pp than in almost any other work in my library. The second paperback edition is easily worth three times its cover price, and except for one flaw, this work is as near perfection as one could ask in a work of linguistic reference.

First, in praise:

To the scholar (or layman) studying the Indo-European roots of the English lexicon, there is no other work (in the English language) of comparable value to this book.

(View the index pages available above to see the English words referenced in the work.)

Each word is derived from its putative IE root, and each root is exemplified by its various reflexes in English, whether native or borrowed. For example, if we look up "deal" in the index, it gives two roots, *dail- (from which we get the meaning "portion out") and *tel- meaning plank or flat stone:

"*tel- Ground, floor, board. 1) DEAL from Middle Low German and Middle Dutch dele, "plank," from Germanic *thil-jo. 2)Suffixed form *tel-n-, TELLURIAN ...[also tile, title].... From Latin tellus "earth, the earth.....[Pokorny 2. *tel- 1061.]"

Hence, Watkins gives us the modern English exemplars of the root, whether they come through Germanic directly or indirectly, or through another PIE sister language such as Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, etc.,. For each root Watkins refers to the proto-form as it is given and numbered (i.e., here 1061) in Pokorny's authoritative "Indogermanisches Etymologisches Woerterbuch" or notes its absence therein.

Watkins also inserts a "language and culture note" on about every other page, giving philological/ethnological insight into the implications of the existence of certain forms and their connotations in the IE proto-language.

Regarding the PIE nominal root *Rtko-s "bear," which is absent as an inherited form in English, Watkins explains that the root (which is found in the Hittite "Hartaggas," Latin "ursus" Greek "arktos" and so forth) is replaced by "taboo" avoiding forms meaning "the brown one: "bruin" or "the honey-eater" as in Slavonic "medv-ed." The significance of such avoidance for hunter-gatherers such as the putative PIE speakers is obvious to anyone who knows the meaning of the word "jinx."

Yet, in criticism:

The book as it is currently titled (second edition, paperback) implies a completeness that the work lacks. When we find that certain English words such as "basket, boy, dwarf, dog" and "girl" are not listed in the lexicon, what are we to assume?

Are they neologisms, as are perhaps "boy, dog" & "girl?"

Are they Germanicisms such as "dwarf" (although it apparently has a canonical PIE root structure)?

Or are they just inexplicable - as it would seem is "basket" which looks an awful lot like a cognate of the Latin "fasces"?

Also, PIE roots not native to or not borrowed into English are ignored, as are most non-PIE-derived yet acceptably 'English' words such as "alcohol."

Nevertheless, even Tolkien had his criticisms of the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) and that work was some 1000 times the length of Watkins' achievement. Anyone who finds these caveats discouraging will know where to seek for further enlightenment.

This work is worth well more than its dime a page asking price, and a must have for any who take their language seriously.

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