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Etymological Dictionary of Greek (review)

From: Classical World
Volume 105, Number 4, Summer 2012
pp. 558-560 | 10.1353/clw.2012.0037

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

On the back cover of each of the two volumes of Beekes’ new dictionary, the publisher has added this simple blurb in boldface: “A must-have research tool that should be on every classicist’s desk.” Indeed, many classicists should consider purchasing this new dictionary, but at close to $600, potential buyers should know that it is not without problems: as a whole the set is rather quirky; some of the analyses are not quite the communis opinio; and although outright errors are rare, careful readers will find many minor problems. Even so, there are strong arguments in favor of purchasing the set.

First, it’s a pretty good dictionary of Greek with over seven thousand entries—most containing multiple words (sometimes dozens). Each entry is subdivided into several sections. An opening line gives the essential information: the word or root in bold, grammatical information, an English gloss, the earliest attestation, and finally an Indo-European root or origin note in angled dingbats. After this opening are maximally five bullet points each introduced by a three- or four-letter abbreviation in caps: VAR(iants), DIAL(ect forms), COMP(ounds), DER(ivatives), and finally ETYM(ologies). Much of this information is now collected in one place for the first time. There is no other up-to-date etymological dictionary of Greek in any language, but even for such simple facts as the basic meaning of words, even our best sources (at least those in English) often fail to reflect the current state of the field.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, the book contains a wealth of information on the historical development of Greek. Since 2005, the Indo-European program at Leiden has been putting out etymological dictionaries of ancient languages. Most of these have been written by junior scholars at the start of their careers, but Beekes chose to undertake the task of Greek himself, and it would hard to imagine anyone more suited to the task. Beekes began his academic career over forty years ago describing the development of the Proto-Indo-European laryngeals in Greek—developments which are now catalogued for the first time in a clear and accessible way, e.g, ἀστήϱ “star” < *h2ster- with the laryngeal confirmed by Hittite ḫasterza (156–157). To be sure, many classicists may find such matters too technical, but linguistic arguments have at times found their way into questions of literary interpretation, and in such cases scholars have not always had a reliable place to turn to for basic linguistic facts about the history of Greek. For general linguistic overview and bibliography, the dictionary is invaluable.

This is not to say the book is without problems. A few crucial entries are simply missing: there is no entry for Cyclops (which should be on 799; 798 lists a cross-reference), nor one for Poseidon (which should be on 1225; 295 lists a cross-reference). Further, readers should be aware that Beekes (and other Leiden scholars) have the peculiar idea that Indo-European did not have a vowel [a], which leads to some rather strange reconstructions, e.g., χήν “goose” < *ĝhh2en-s- (1630), but this over-laryngealistic view causes fewer problems than one might imagine since the vast majority of Greek α and ᾱ’s have developed secondarily.

A more pervasive issue is Beekes’ view on the non-Indo-European vocabulary of Greek. In the introductory material, Beekes has included a section on “Pre-Greek” speech, and one of his goals is to show that many words once thought to be Indo-European descendants are in fact survivals from a substrate Pre-Greek language. Thus, readers may be surprised to find the traditional etymologies of many common words discarded: e.g., ἄγυια “street” (17) not from ἄγω, ἀδάμας “a strong metal” (19) not from the root of δάμνημι, αἴθουσα “portico” not from αἴθω, θέμις “justice, law, custom” (539) not from the root θη - These and many others are for Beekes descended from Pre-Greek. Compare especially his treatment of various divine names; e.g., Ἀθήνη (29), Ἀπόλλων (118–119), Ἄϱης (129), Ἄϱτεμις (142), Ἀφϱοδίτη (179), etc. Among the major deities only Ἀίδης (34 from *n˚-wid- “unseen”), Πεϱσεφόνη (1179–1180 from *perso-gwhn-t-ih2 “thresher of corn”) and of course Ζεύς (498–499) are judged...

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