Tocharian!

I don’t seem to have posted about Tocharian, which is a bit surprising because it’s always been one of the Indo-European languages I’ve found most intriguing, for its unexpected location, its equally unexpected developments, and the history of its discovery. Matthew Scarborough has continued his survey of Indo-European etymological dictionaries (overview, Anatolian) with Indo-European Etymological Dictionaries for the Perplexed: Tocharian Languages, and far from being a mere list of a few books, it’s a general introduction to the field, with examples of etymologies, images of book pages, and a nice photo of an actual text. He starts by saying “I am no specialist in Tocharian and I have never studied Tocharian formally,” but he has some strong views which he makes clear, e.g.:

One of the more notable differences in the Dictionary of Tocharian B to most other works the Indo-European side of things is that Adams continues to reconstruct a fourth a-colouring laryngeal *h₄ which left no trace in Anatolian. If you’re familiar with some of Adams’s other work like The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World this oddity of reconstruction will probably not come as a huge surprise. My own hot take on fourth-laryngealism is that if you’re reconstructing a fourth laryngeal, there are a small handful of etymologies that you desperately want to be true, but the evidence is not actually bearing it out, so you reconstruct a whole new phoneme as a last ditch effort to make them work. Needless to say, it gives me the impression of a lower bar of rigour set for the acceptance of any given etymological proposal in general, and so I would tend tread a bit more cautiously with the etymological proposals made here. That said, Adams is in every respect one of the major world authorities on the Tocharian languages and he has also published extensively on Indo-European as well, so one should not be entirely dismissive of his proposals either.

So I was glad to see his post, and I hope you’ll take a moment to investigate this minor member of the I-E family.

Comments

  1. Tocharian is indeed interesting. It will be great when/if DNA results become available from early Tocharians.

    As of now, there are only old (primitive by today’s standards) results from the Tarim Basin Mummies, but there is neither evidence that these people spoke Tocharian, or that the results are actually accurate (they could be contamination).

  2. Yes, it’s quite frustrating!

  3. John Cowan says:

    The heavenly axes of Sieg and Siegling fall on your head if you ever call the noble Tocharian languages “minor” again!

  4. Thanks again for another shoutout on this series!

  5. The first quoted sentence reads to me like prepositions were selected (or omitted) at random. Do others find the use of in, to and the void before ‘the Indo-European’ more felicitous than i do?

  6. @Ryan: I think Scarborough has simply managed to use three specifically British constructions in a row.

  7. That’s my take on it as well.

  8. Ryan:

    Vague in is exceedingly common in all forms of English nowadays, and is nothing new either. You can, for example (h/t the AHD), split something in two, be in love or in debt or in command or even in pursuit, be paid in cash, write a poem in English or in rhyme, be six feet in height, or trust in my judgment.

    Different to is indeed mostly non-North-American nowadays, and though Matthew is a Canadian, he’s been living and working in the UK for some time now.

    Finally, I agree that there is a preposition missing before Indo-European, most likely on. Saying most other works the Indo-European side of things is (I think) ungrammatical in every variety of English.

  9. > most other works the Indo-European side of things

    I believe NPs with “side” as head can be used to modify nouns, although I don’t think I can list the exact conditions, as in

    “Best pizza this side of the river!”

    When I first read the bit in question, I thought it was a case of that, or maybe a jocular extension of the construction to a context where it’s marked. By on further thought, I agree with JC it’s probably just an error.

    What perplexed me more was the passage

    > a fourth a-colouring laryngeal *h₄

    I think he means “a fourth, a-colouring laryngeal *h₄” with a comma, right? They’re not all a-coloring, are they?

  10. He could reconstruc’ a laryngeal just like a-colorin’ a fourth.

  11. David Eddyshaw says:

    “… most other works the Indo-European side of things” is notably informal but nevertheless perfectly grammatical for me. Maybe it’s a US/UK thing, as Rodger C and Hat suppose.

  12. marie-lucie says:

    David E: “… most other works the Indo-European side of things” is notably informal but nevertheless perfectly grammatical for me

    That is how understood it at first reading. Afterwards I thought that the lack of a preposition could be just a typing error, and was not sure of which interpretation to choose, but I can now agree in good conscience with you and with dainichi.

  13. *sigh*

    I can never get a break with my by-now very mixed spoken and written idiolect…

  14. David Marjanović says:

    I think he means “a fourth, a-colouring laryngeal *h₄” with a comma, right? They’re not all a-coloring, are they?

    Correct – *h₂ and *h₄ would be a-coloring, *h₃ o-coloring, and *h₁ not coloring at all.

  15. I can never get a break with my by-now very mixed spoken and written idiolect…

    Eh, pay it no mind — people around here pride themselves on their pickiness (and sometimes prickliness), but it’s all in fun.

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