Indo-European Textbooks for the Perplexed.

Matthew Scarborough, who has been producing (off and on) an extraordinarily useful series of bibliographic essays discussing etymological dictionaries for the Indo-European languages (I have posted about them a number of times, beginning here), has now done an Introduction to Indo-European Linguistics and Culture Textbooks for the Perplexed which is perhaps of wider interest, and certainly worth your while if you’ve ever wanted to learn something about the topic. He says:

So, in this post I’m going to give a bibliography / reading list of some of the most useful absolute introductory books you can go to in order to start, followed by a few more reading recommendations on where you can go next. This list is going to be mostly anglocentric, but I’ll also throw in a few French and German recommendations where appropriate.

Just to give you a sample, here are the last two items (from the “Further Reading after the General Stuff” section):

• Gamkrelidze, Tamaz & Vyecheslav Ivanovich Ivanov. 1995. Indo-European and the Indo-Europeans: A Reconstruction and Analysis of a Proto-Language and Proto-Culture. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

This work is a translation of the authors earlier Russian work Индоевропейский Язык и Индоевропецы [Indo-European Language and the Indo-Europeans] (1984, Tblisi University Press). It is essentially broken down into two components: (1) a new reconstruction of Indo-European and (2) a semantic dictionary of reconstructed Proto-Indo-European. While many aspects of this work’s reconstruction remain controversial, including an implementation of the authors’ version of the glottalic theory** and a reconstruction of a homeland roughly around modern-day Armenia, there is still a lot of useful material to be found here, especially in its semantic dictionary and its synthesis of Soviet scholarship that has often not been so accessible to American and European scholars. It is a good book to think with.

• Klein, Jared, Brian Joseph, Matthias Fritz (eds.) 2017-2018. Handbook of Comparative and Historical Indo-European Linguistics (3 Vols.). Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton.

This is the newest comprehensive reference work on Indo-European and all of its individual branches. It is the closest thing we have to a new Brugmann Grundriß. Clocking in at $400 USD per volume, it is unlikely to be a purchase by anyone but a reference library, but if you have access to such a library or online resources to De Gruyter Online this is the place to go for a very detailed and up-to-date survey of current perspectives in Indo-European reconstruction and the histories of the individual branches.

Thanks for the heads-up, JC!


  1. John Cowan says

    Just so this shows up in the comments, and to avoid terrifying the masses with the too-hard and the too-expensive, I’ll post the first two.

    Fortson, Benjamin W. 2010. Indo-European Language and Culture: An Introduction (2nd ed.) Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.

    By far the most accessible textbook for readers of English is Ben Fortson’s Indo-European Language and Culture: An Introduction. Some previous experience in historical linguistics in general might be helpful, but it’s not strictly required.

    The comparative method is explained in the first chapter, and in subsequent chapters Fortson gives an overview of the standard consensus model of Indo-European reconstruction in terms of phonology, morphology, inflectional paradigms, comments on syntax, and an overview of what is reconstructable of Indo-European culture in terms of linguistic paleontology. The remainder of the book is a chapter-by-chapter discussion of the main linguistic changes from reconstructed Proto-Indo-European to the oldest attested languages in each individual branch.

    This discussion is, of course, not exhaustive. There is only so much that you can pile into an introductory survey of Indo-European historical linguistics, but all-in-all you still get a very good handle on the main historical features of the different branches on the whole.

    Throughout it also has numerous exercises that can be used to help reinforce the ideas and concepts being covered. A third revised edition is apparently on the way soon, so sayeth Theo Nash (@theo_nash) on Twitter who recently took an Introduction to Indo-European course in Michigan from the man himself.

    Clackson, James. 2007. Indo-European Linguistics: An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
    While this book is billed as an ‘Introduction’ I wouldn’t recommend it as your first port of call for an absolute beginner.

    The main purpose of this book, as itself claims, is “to help readers get to grips with some of the issues in Indo-European linguistics and prompt further discussion” (p. xii). I’m not sure if what was exactly what James intended was to produce a companion volume or supplement to the Cambridge Faculty of Classics Third Year Introduction to Indo-European course of lectures, but having observed those lectures and supervised that course some time after having initially read this book, I kind of have an impression that this is one of its main intended uses.

    It’s still a very good concise overview of PIE phonology, morphology, syntax, and the main controversies surrounding these topics circa 2007, and it’s a good jumping off point to finding out what of the standard consensus model you get in a book like Fortson’s is actually more controversial in the literature.

    I admit that some of the controversies presented in this book have since moved on substantially, for example the ‘new’ field of computational cladistics discussed in the first chapter have advanced substantially in the last decade and a half. On the whole, however, this textbook still generally holds up very well and yet serves in its stated function to point out where some of the main problems and controversies of the field tend to lie nowadays. There are also excellent exercises throughout the book to hone your skills and practice with comparative data.

  2. John Cowan says

    Per, I can get the Fortson for US$30 in Used/Good condition, the Clackson for US$38 in Used/Very Good condition. Both prices include shipping to NYC, the first from the U.S. and the second from the UK.

  3. marie-lucie says

    Thank you JC! Very useful information!

  4. Where does this slack ‘for the perplexed’ trope come from? Most people are perplexed most of the time, whatever the subject. I interpret its use as an apologetic encouragement of some sort: ‘don’t worry about it’, maybe? Every author needs to give his work a distinctive title. “The big stripey book of … “, “What you may not need to know about … “, “Old Possum’s last book of … “, “Further …. for Use in Schools and Colleges”. Consult the Red Book of Academic Titles if you are a perplexed author.

  5. @Gavin Wraith:

    Where does this slack ‘for the perplexed’ trope come from?

    From Maimonides, patently. (The Rambam has been called many things, but ‘slack’?)

  6. @Alon Lischinsky

    but ‘slack’?

    Sorry – ancient slang from my schooldays, meaning ‘requires more effort’. Thanks for the reference. It reminds me of the advice to authors on the back covers of the Pacific Journal of Mathematics on how to lay out citations: “O.K.Blank. On the theory of subsets of the empty set”. It looks more convincing in German. In Hebrew it might look even more convincing, perhaps.

  7. There is an explanation of Maimonides’ choice of the Arabic term حائِر ḥāʾir in Joel L. Kraemer (2008) “Maimonides the Great Healer’, Maimonidean Studies 5, on pages 9 and 10. I hope Google Books lets LH readers have a complete view.

  8. Ah, so the perplexed are those suffering from aporia. Thanks!

  9. David Eddyshaw says

    The notion of philosophy as essentially therapeutic is prominent with Wittgenstein, too (though from a very different angle.)

  10. hmm! makes me wonder whether there’s a relationship (for maimonides or/and later commentators) between “ḥāʾir” / “aporia” and “mitzraim” (used for egypt in the exodus narrative; conventionally glossed as “the narrow place”; i believe in in fact in some way from “masr”/”misr”). which i guess depends on how dead the passageway metaphor in “poros” is?

  11. @Gavin Wraith: I got the intended meaning: we do regularly speak of a ‘tight’ argument, so the metaphor is recoverable even to those of a different generation. What surprised me is that tightness is precisely one of the qualities that Maimonides, the Trope Maker, is reputed for.

  12. David Marjanović says

    “mitzraim” (used for egypt in the exodus narrative; conventionally glossed as “the narrow place”; i believe in in fact in some way from “masr”/”misr”)

    Yes. Straightforwardly its dual; the two Egypts are Lower and Upper Egypt.

    Being the Nile valley, Egypt is rather narrow… Upper Egypt is, at least.

Speak Your Mind