Books on linguistic theory always instruct, often enlighten, but all too rarely afford real pleasure. I know of only two books on Indo-European that possess that elusive quality of un-put-downability: one is Paul Friedrich's Proto-Indo-European Trees: The Arboreal System of a Prehistoric People (Chicago 1970), the other is this one by Winfred P. Lehmann, the paperback edition of a book first published in 1993. When it first came out it was hailed by a reviewer in The Times Literary Supplement as a 'masterpiece' - and with some justice, for Lehmann has (once again) produced a book which - notwithstanding its somewhat stodgy 'Teutonic' title - is remarkable for its lucidity and the sheer readability of the enthralling story of how the present state of our knowledge of Indo-European was reached - through the pioneering endeavours of William Jones, Franz Bopp, Friedrich Schlegel, Jacob Grimm, the Neo-grammarians, Ferdinand de Saussure and others down to the recent publications of such scholars as Oswald Szemerényi, Theo Vennemann, Thomas V. Gamkrelidze and Vyacheslav V. Ivanov, to name but a few.
The book opens with an account of the evolving aims and methods of the founders of the subject and the progress made by their successors, and then discusses the merits and shortcomings of acknowledged standard handbooks (such as Karl Brugmann's Grundriß der vergleichenden Grammatik der indogermanischen Sprachen (Strasbourg 1897-1916), Hermann Hirt's Indogermanische Grammatik (Heidelberg 1921-37) and Jerzy Kurylowicz's Indogermanische Grammatik (Heidelberg 1968)), before outlining the advances made on the basis of new data (notably the evidence from Hittite) and new principles (Joseph Greenberg's work on syntax, for instance). What is impressive here is the fairness and justice with which Lehmann assesses the theories of scholars whose work, though now outdated and often enough long since discredited, once represented the cutting-edge of the subject: examples include his discussion of Brugmann's over-strict reliance on the comparative method in his treatment of phonology which was eventually remedied by Antoine Meillet, Hermann Hirt and especially Jerzy Kurylowicz; Morris Swadesh's glottochronology; Hermann Hirt's embarrassing belief that all Indo-European languages exhibit initial position of the verb; not to mention various misguided theories concerning the Urheimat of the Indo-European peoples. Given the bewildering range of publications by august names, Lehmann's firm guidance on 'handbooks that may be considered fundamental in current study' (pp. 68-9) will be particularly appreciated.
In the remaining eight chapters Lehmann presents a more detailed discussion of specific issues in Proto-Indo-European and Pre-Indo-European phonology, the nominal elements (where he too modestly mentions the seminal importance of his own work on nominal inflection) and verbal system, the syntax of Proto- and Pre-Indo-European, the lexicon, and the community of Indo-European speakers.
All told, the book clearly shows how a more rigorous structural approach has over the years led to an improved understanding of the surviving linguistic data, how discoveries in Anatolia especially have shed important new light on earlier stages of the Indo-European family, and how the general study of language has enabled us to identify characteristic patterns and interrelationships which have clarified issues which defeated the pioneers of Indo-European comparative linguistics.
Yet, valuable though it undeniably is as a handbook on current major issues in Indo-European linguistics, this volume is above all a book about the history of linguistics, about the contribution of individuals to the advancement of the subject - whether Karl Verner's classic paper on Indo-European accent (1875) or Helmut Scharfe's important demonstration in 1985 that the assumed IE word for 'king' by which Meillet and others set so much store was in fact a linguistic ghost. As such, therefore, Lehmann's book richly deserves a place in the library of everyone concerned with the history of linguistic ideas.
John L Flood, London