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Review of An introduction to Proto-Indo-European

posted January 13th, 2012

An introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the early Indo-European languages. By Joseph Voyles and Charles Barrack. Pp. viii, 647. Bloomington, IN: Slavica, 2009. ISBN 9780893573423. $49.95.

Reviewed by Mark J. Elson, University of Virginia

Following a first chapter presenting terminology, methodology, and a survey of the phonology and morphology of Proto-Indo-European, each chapter of this useful book provides a synchronic phonology and historico-synchronic morphology of one of the ancient Indo-European languages, and includes as well an inventory of the sound changes, with attention to relative chronology, which relate the language to Proto-Indo-European. There are, in addition, exercises and a short text for each language, with each word of the latter parsed. The book is intended for students, its goal being to provide the necessary background for transition to more detailed treatments, which are often inaccessible to beginners. The languages included are Gothic (41–120), Latin (121–214), Greek (215–310), Old Irish (311–92), Old Church Slavic (393–472), Sanskrit (473–562), and Hittite (563–612). The book concludes with references (613–20) and word indices (621–47).

There are features of this book which some will criticize. Perhaps foremost among them is the theoretical structure that the authors introduce in the first chapter for the presentation of data. This structure, to the extent it qualifies as a coherent framework, is best described as early generative, including four components termed levels: deep, transformational, morphological, and phonological. The authors’ brief commentary (2–6) reveals that the deep and transformational levels are essentially syntactic. It is difficult to see their relevance because syntax plays no role in this book. The morphological and phonological levels as the authors conceive them require nothing more than a basic knowledge of the traditional morpheme, phoneme, and associated concepts (e.g. allomorph, phonological feature, allophone). There is a description of the comparative method (6–7), but no discussion of the important associated concept of sound change and its relevance to the realization of morphemes. The authors may believe they have attended to these concepts in their theoretical structure under the headings, respectively, of phonological rule and morphological rule. If so, however, there is a concomitant, albeit tacit, likening of reconstructions to synchronically motivated underlying representations, an equation that will not suit all users of this book.

Another difficulty is the impression given that a proto-language is always related more or less directly to its attested daughters, which ignores the generally accepted assumption that other proto-languages may intervene. In the case of Slavic, for example, the authors’ presentation, despite their division of the period preceding Old Church Slavic into stages (393–94) and the comment that some of the changes affected ‘the Slavic area’ (363), suggests a direct connection between sound changes like the first palatalization of velars and Old Church Slavic, obscuring the fact that such changes are best understood as having occurred within Common Slavic, a reconstructed period of common development that takes reconstructed Proto-Slavic as its point of departure. Finally, and despite the claim of the authors, there is no significant analysis in the presentation of the ancient morphologies. There is only an inventory of forms paradigmatically arranged and accompanied by their reconstructed etyma morphologically, divided according to their Indo-European constituents. Language-specific details of the evolution of the inherited nominal and verbal systems are left virtually unattended.

Instructors will nevertheless recognize the potential of this book in linguistic curricula which offer specialization in Indo-European linguistics. The difficulties are relatively superficial, and easily remedied by the use of any currently available general introduction to historical linguistics in combination with language-specific clarification and amplification provided in the classroom.