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Review of  Indo-European Language and Culture

Reviewer: Donald Reindl
Book Title: Indo-European Language and Culture
Book Author: Benjamin W. Forston
Publisher: Wiley
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Anthropological Linguistics
Language Family(ies): Indo-European
Issue Number: 16.2204

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Date: Mon, 18 Jul 2005 07:19:44 +0200
From: Donald Reindl
Subject: Indo-European Language and Culture: An Introduction

AUTHOR: Fortson, Benjamin W., IV
TITLE: Indo-European Language and Culture
SUBTITLE: An Introduction
PUBLISHER: Blackwell Publising
YEAR: 2004

Donald F. Reindl, Department of Translation, Faculty of Arts, University
of Ljubljana, Slovenia


"Indo-European Language and Culture: An Introduction" is one of those very
few books that occasionally appear in Indo-European (IE) studies that
manage to be instructive, erudite, intriguing, and entertaining all at the
same time. In a field that is all too often viewed as the purview of
recondite 19th-century graybeards, readers ranging from beginning students
to professional linguists will enjoy (re)discovering the breadth and depth
of IE languages and culture through the wealth of details that the author,
Benjamin W. Fortson IV, presents in an engaging manner. One of the stated
goals of the book is to make IE studies accessible to the "intelligent
layperson with linguistic interests but without specialized training"
(xii), and in this regard the author has succeeded admirably.

The book is organized in two sections: a general overview of IE studies,
followed by a set of chapters focusing on each branch of the IE language
family. Chapter 1 provides an overview of the comparative method, which
indeed is essential to any understanding of historical linguistics.
General knowledge of the basic material laid out on pages 1-5 would have
saved linguistics from any number of half-baked theories on linguistic
affiliation that nonetheless continue to exert a powerful attraction for
amateurs -- ranging from the well-known Basque-Caucasian hypothesis to the
relatively obscure Venetic-Slovenian theory. Chapter 2 examines the
general aspects of Proto-Indo-European (PIE) culture: the hierarchical and
patriarchal structure of society, religion, poetics, names, archeological
evidence, and hypotheses regarding the location of the original IE
homeland. Chapters 3 through 8 address linguistic aspects of PIE:
phonology, morphology, the verb, the noun, pronouns and other parts of
speech, and syntax. Part two of the book (chapters 9 through 20) examines
the individual branches of IE: Anatolian, Indic, Iranian, Greek, Italic,
Celtic, Germanic, Armenian, Tocharian, Balto-Slavic, and Albanian, as well
as a final chapter on fragmentary languages (Phrygian, Thracian, etc.) for
which no definitive classification has yet been established.

A number of special features mark the presentation. True to its nature as
a textbook, each chapter concludes with a review of 20 or so key terms
from the chapter and exercises. The exercises ranging from relatively
simple tasks (e.g., "Memorize the names of all the branches of the IE
family...," 15) to more challenging ones (e.g., "...explain why the 's' in
the Old Irish compound 'rigsuide' ... is lenited", 299). The branch-
specific chapters also end with thematic vocabulary lists, each containing
about a dozen IE roots and selected cognates (e.g., *sal-, Gk. hals, Lat.
sal, OCS soli, Eng. salt) intended for memorization. The themes selected
include kinship, animals, food, agriculture, the body, and so on.

The chapters themselves are distinguished by the inclusion of selected
representative paradigms -- for example, Old Irish nominal and verbal
inflection for Celtic (288), Old English nominal and verbal inflection for
Germanic (319), Lithuanian nominal inflection for Balto-Slavic (382), and
so on. In a proper diachronic orientation, these representative paradigms
represent the most archaic information available for each branch. Sample
texts are also included in the chapters, ranging from the Old
Hittite "Ritual for the Royal Couple" (166-167) to the Old Norse "Lay of
Thrym" from the "Poetic Edda" (332-333). These texts are accompanied by
translations and copious notes and, with some effort, enable beginners to
try their hands at "reading" languages from Avestan (209) to Venetic (407).

The entire volume is rounded out by a glossary of special terminology, a
chapter-by-chapter bibliography that also serves as a reference list for
further reading, and comprehensive word and subject indexes.


The popular accessibility of the volume is one of its most attractive
features. Fortson achieves this goal not by simplifying his presentation,
but by constantly tying the material presented to facts that are likely to
be familiar to almost any reader, interjecting a good measure of humor,
and sprinkling the text with intriguing details. For example, "taboo
deformation" is exemplified by English "God" > "gosh" (28), IE poetic
innovation is compared to modern jazz innovation (30), hyperbaton is
exemplified with the familiar "magna cum laude" among other examples
(139), the Armenian patronymic suffix -ean is clarified by reference to
the name "Khachaturian" (347), the Slavic adjectival -ov is compared
to "Molotov" and "Chekhov" (374), and the narrative mood of Balkan Slavic
is characterized as a "the hell you say" mood (378). One cannot help but
smile when reading observations such as how, in a caveat to the discussion
on the IE homeland, the PIE word for 'louse' was generalized to become the
Tocharian word for 'animal' (40), that the certainty of the reconstruction
of the interjection for woe or agony is "perhaps indicative of some of the
less pleasant aspects of life in the older IE societies" (135), or how a
supposed Illyrian inscription unearthed a century ago in Albania turned
out to be Byzantine Greek mistakenly read backwards (401). Finally, what
reader will not be engrossed by the details such as the ritual copulation
of Celtic royalty with horses (25) or the famous child language experiment
by the Phrygian King Psammetichus (401)?

The author acknowledges that the breadth of IE is such that it is
impossible to cover the subject comprehensively, even in an introductory
manner. The volume is therefore "tailored to what is interesting and
important for each branch or language" (xiii). In this regard, especially
characteristic features are emphasized, such as the striking absence of
the aorist, perfect, and dual in Anatolian (155), the triple reflex of the
laryngeals in Greek (229), the extremely unusual sound changes of Armenian
(340 ff.), the definite adjectives of Slavic (367), and the admirative
mood of Albanian (396). At the same time, language-specific conventions
that a linguist must understand to deal with any given language are
explained. Thus the reader learns, for example, that an initial
parenthetical "s" marks an IE s-mobile root (71), boldface is used in
Oscan when transliterating the Oscan alphabet (115), Anatolian "=" marks
clitic boundaries (157), Lithuanian e-overdot indicates length (365), and
interpuncts reveal syllable structure in Venetic (409-410). With the
exception of a few Greek characters (228, 230) in a discussion of
orthography, all material is transliterated into the Roman alphabet. At
the same time, great effort was made to preserve the diacritics and other
characteristics of the various Roman-alphabet material to reflect
the "inviting mystery and beauty" (xiv) of these characters for beginners.

One of the key messages that a careful reader will receive from the book
is that there is a great uniformity in language phenomena despite
diversity across time and space, although this is generally not made
explicit. For example, the merger of the 3rd person singular/plural in
Lydian (175) is paralleled by the merger of the 3rd singular/dual/plural
in Baltic (381), and the loss of initial s- known as "psilosis" in Ionic
and other Greek dialects (227-228) is paralleled by a similar loss in
Armenian (342). On page 343 an explicit parallel is drawn between the
development of word-final accent in Armenian and French through the loss
of final syllables in an accentual system with penultimate stress.

The shortcomings of the book are few, but occasionally certain parallels
to living or other languages could have been made. For example, the
separation of nouns and modifiers by intervening elements is characterized
as "common to all the older languages," with examples from Luvian, Greek,
Latin, Armenian, and Old Irish (139). Nonetheless, this syntactic pattern
is very much alive in modern Croatian. The same page states that vestiges
of postpositions are found in certain "older IE languages" -- but
postpositions also appear with considerable frequency in Germanic and
Slavic today (e.g., Reindl 2001). A three-fold distinction in the deictic
system is said to exist in "Armenian, like Latin and certain other ancient
IE languages" (344). Yet, the same system exists in modern Spanish and
Macedonian. It is stated that Albanian has occasional clause-initial
enclitic pronouns, and that "[n]one of the enclitic pronouns in other IE
language can be so placed" (397). However, within Slavic studies modern
Slovenian is well known for allowing clause-initial enclitic pronouns
(e.g., Franks 2000).

Occasionally it seems that certain details should have been squeezed in,
regardless of the limited scope of the volume. For example, in the chapter
on Balto-Slavic it would have been useful to note the dispute over the
chronological sequence of the velar palatalizations (370), the existence
of the supine in the catalog of verbal forms (372), virility as a relevant
semantic category in West Slavic alongside animacy (372-373), and -- most
noticeably lacking -- the distinctive phonemic palatalization in the
consonant inventory of a number of Slavic languages. Very rarely a thought
or observation seems incomplete -- on page 37, for example, we are told
that separate IE words for 'piglet' and 'grown pig' is evidence of their
domestication, because "the two are treated differently in animal
husbandry." Having grown up on a farm with pigs, I am at a loss to
understand how young and adult pigs are treated any differently from any
other young and adult livestock.

These quibbles aside, Fortson has succeeded in creating a book that will
serve not only as a solid textbook for an introduction to Indo-European,
but also as a handy general reference book on the topic (thanks largely to
its indexes) and an enjoyable read for professionals in the field. "Indo-
European Language and Culture: An Introduction" is destined to become a
standard text on reading lists in historical linguistics, and deserves a
place on the bookshelf of anyone that has more than a passing interest in
the history of this language family.


Franks, Steven. (2000). "Clitics at the interface." In: Clitic Phenomena
in European Languages, ed. Marcel den Dikken & Frits Beukema. Amsterdam:
John Benjamins, 1-46.

Reindl, Donald F. (2001). "Areal effects on the preservation and genesis
of Slavic postpositions." In: On Prepositions. Studia Slavica
Oldenburgensia 8, ed. Ljiljana Saric and Donald F. Reindl. Oldenburg: Carl-
von-Ossietzky-Universit├Ąt Oldenburg, 85-99.


Donald F. Reindl has a Ph.D. in Slavic linguistics from Indiana
University. His research focuses on the history of the South Slavic
languages. As an instructor at the University of Ljubljana, he teaches
courses in translation and English grammar. He also contributes political
analyses to Radio Free Europe and the Economist Intelligence Unit.

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