Review of The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the World's Ancient Languages
Date: Mon, 13 Jun 2005 16:27:06 -0400 (EDT)
From: Marc Pierce
Subject: The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the World's Ancient Languages
EDITOR: Woodard, Roger D.
TITLE: The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the World's Ancient Languages
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
Marc Pierce, Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures, University
According to the dust jacket, this book is "the first comprehensive
reference work treating all the languages of antiquity"; it contains 45
chapters on a wide range of languages, all by recognized experts,
including the following: 'Sumerian', by Piotr Michalowski; 'Phoenician and
Punic', by Jo Ann Hackett; 'Hittite', by Calvert Watkins; 'Avestan', by
Mark Hale; 'Etruscan', by Helmut Rix; and 'Epi-Olmec', by Terrence Kaufman
and John Justeson. There is also an 'Introduction' by the editor and a
chapter on 'Reconstructed Ancient Languages' by Don Ringe. The languages
covered were chosen according to chronological parameters, with the 5th
century AD serving as the terminus ante quem. As Woodard notes in
his 'Introduction', this date is a traditional one; the fall of the Roman
Empire in the west in 476 is as good a date as any to mark the end of the
period of antiquity. Some 'quite pragmatic linguistic conditions' (1)
also support this choice, namely that a number of early languages,
including Gothic, Classical Armenian, and Early Old Georgian, are first
significantly attested in the 4th or 5th centuries AD. Furthermore,
starting in about the 7th century AD a vast number of languages, ranging
from Old English to Classical Arabic, appear on the stage; including these
languages would have swelled this volume beyond its already significant
size. Choosing a terminus post quem was of course much easier, as it was
determined by the origins and development of writing. Sumerian appears to
have been the first written language, dating from about the 'late fourth
millennium BC' (2), with Egyptian emerging a relatively short time later,
and Sumerian and Egyptian are therefore the oldest languages treated in
The chapters all follow the same pattern. First, the 'historical and
cultural contexts' of the individual language(s) are described, followed
by a section on the writing system(s) of the language(s). Then come
sections on phonology, morphology, syntax (an area too often neglected by
traditional handbooks), and the lexicon. Each chapter concludes with a
bibliography; some of the chapters also include a 'reading list'
commenting on the various bibliographical entries.
As an exhaustive discussion of every chapter is precluded by the
limitations of this forum, I shall comment on the two chapters I am most
competent to evaluate, namely those on the early Germanic languages
('Gothic' [881-906], by Jay H. Jasanoff, and 'Ancient Nordic' [907-921],
by Jan Terje Faarlund), and then offer a more general appraisal of the
work as a whole.
Gothic is the only well-attested East Germanic language, and exists
primarily in a partial Bible translation prepared by the bishop Wulfila
(or Ulfilas) in the fourth century. There is also a partial commentary on
the Gospel of John called the Skeireins ('explanation') and a handful of
other fragmentary attestations (including Crimean Gothic, some probably
corrupt material collected in the Crimea by a Flemish nobleman around
1560). Jasanoff presents an excellent, well-organized, and clearly-
written survey of the Gothic material. In just over two pages he gives a
snapshot of the historical and cultural context of Gothic, not neglecting
to mention Crimean Gothic. The discussion of the Gothic alphabet is also
generally well-done, although possible connections between the Gothic and
runic alphabets could have been discussed in somewhat more detail (cf.
Mees 2002/03). Phonological and morphological matters like Sievers' Law
are presented clearly and succinctly. Syntax is only briefly discussed,
but the rationale for this (that Gothic syntax was so heavily influenced
by Greek syntax that it is very difficult to tell how much Gothic syntax
is 'authentically Gothic and how much is Greek in Gothic disguise' )
cannot be contested. The bibliography is mildly disappointing, in that
some fundamental works like Bennett (1960) are not cited. Furthermore,
some works are cited in outdated editions, e.g. the 5th edition of
Streitberg, published in 1965, is cited, although a 7th edition appeared
As to the chapter by Faarlund, the term 'Ancient Nordic' is used here for
the language of the ancient runic inscriptions, attested before about 500
AD. The genetic status of this language remains controversial. Was it
North Germanic, Northwest Germanic, West Germanic, or what Faarlund
calls 'some kind of koine, a common ritual pan-Germanic language' (908)?
Faarlund's chapter generally matches the high standard set by Jasanoff's.
The 'historical and cultural contexts' section gives a very brief
discussion of Germanic prehistory and then discusses the runic corpus and
its transliteration. The discussion of the runic writing system is
handled well, although the evaluation of its possible origins could have
considered the North Italian theory at greater length (cf. Mees 2000).
The sections on phonology and morphology are also well-done, and the
section on syntax is pleasantly detailed (see Faarlund 2004 for a more
extensive discussion of Old Norse syntax). The bibliography is certainly
Although there is much to admire in these chapters, there are at least two
things that I would have liked to have seen treated differently. First,
too often insufficient references are given; the discussion of what type
of language 'Ancient Nordic' actually is will suffice as an example. On
p. 908, Faarlund outlines the four possibilities listed above, prefacing
them by saying 'so and so argues, considers, etc', yet, of the four
authorities cited, Faarlund only provides references for two of them.
Providing references to all of the authorities cited would certainly make
it easier for interested readers to track down the relevant materials.
Secondly, possibly controversial issues are too often glossed over.
Consider, for instance, Faarlund's discussion of the phonemic status of
the velar nasal in the runic alphabet, which simply states '[t]he phonemic
status of [the velar nasal] is not quite clear; it may be an allophonic
variant of /n/ before velars' (912). This is certainly true, but there is
no indication of why this issue might be important, and reference to other
works where this problem might be discussed in more detail (e.g. Antonsen
2002 and Schwink 2000) is also missing. A similar complaint applies to
Jasanoff's discussion of Holtzmann's Law in Gothic (890). Although a
handbook certainly cannot consider all possible solutions, a few relevant
references would have been appropriate.
An important question to consider is the intended audience for this book.
It is clear, for example, that the individual chapters normally do not
render the standard handbooks redundant. However, could students safely
be referred to this book? In the case of Jasanoff's chapter on Gothic,
for example, the best comparison is to works like Barrack (2001), Robinson
(1992), and Marchand (1970). (Other possible comparisons, like Jasanoff
1997 or the appropriate chapter in Fortson 2004 are not entirely fitting,
as those chapters are about Germanic in general, not specifically
Gothic.) And happily, Jasanoff's chapter certainly measures up well to
these other works. Barrack (2001) is too brief, whetting the reader's
appetite but ultimately failing to satisfy the reader who wants more
detailed information, while Marchand (1970) is too idiosyncratic for
beginners. Moreover, Marchand (1970) is written in German, and it is an
unfortunate fact of life in the United States at least that it is
increasingly difficult to persuade students to read material written in
languages other than English. On the other hand, Jasanoff's chapter
requires too much linguistic sophistication for an absolute beginner, and
the Gothic chapter in Robinson (1992) would therefore be more appropriate
in that situation (although I believe that the more linguistically
experienced reader would be better served by Jasanoff's chapter here).
The same general appraisal applies to Faarlund's chapter.
In sum, although this is certainly not the type of book that one reads
from cover to cover, every scholar or student interested in the subject
matter should have access to it.
Antonsen, Elmer H. 2002. Runes and Germanic linguistics. Berlin: de
Barrack, Charles M. 2001. Gothic. In: Facts about the world's
languages. Edited by Jane Gary and Carl Rubino. New York: H.W. Wilson.
Bennett, William H. 1960. The Gothic commentary on the Gospel of Saint
John. New York: MLA.
Faarlund, Jan Terje. 2004. The syntax of Old Norse. Oxford: OUP.
Fortson, Benjamin W. IV. 2004. Indo-European language and culture: An
introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Jasanoff, Jay H. 1997. Germanic. In: Langues indo-europennes. Edited
by Francoise Bader. Paris : CNRS Editions.
Marchand, James W. 1970. Gotisch. In: Kurzer Grundriss der germanischen
Philologie. Band I: Sprachgeschichte. Edited by L. E. Schmitt. Berlin:
de Gruyter. Pp. 94-122.
Mees, Bernard. 2000. The North Etruscan thesis of the origin of the
runes. Arkiv for nordisk filologi 115: 33-82.
Mees, Bernard. 2002/03. Runo-Gothica. The runes and the origins of
Wulfila's script. Die Sprache 43: 55-79.
Robinson, Orrin W. III. 1992. Old English and its closest relatives.
Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Schwink, Frederick W. 2000. The velar nasal in the adaptation of the
runic alphabet. American Journal of Germanic Linguistics and Literatures
Streitberg, Wilhelm. 2000. Die gotische Bibel. Revised by Piergiuseppe
Scardigli. 7th edition. Heidelberg: Carl Winter.
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ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Marc Pierce is a lecturer in German and Classics at the University of
Michigan. His research focuses on historical linguistics, Germanic
linguistics, and phonology.