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  • Semitic and Indo-European Vol 2: Comparative morphology, syntax, and phonetics by Saul Levin
  • Peter T. Daniels
Semitic and Indo-European. Vol. 2: Comparative morphology, syntax, and phonetics. By Saul Levin. (Current issues in linguistic theory 226.) Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2002. Pp. xviii, 592. ISBN 1588112225. $132 (Hb).

More clearly than in his first volume, subtitled The principal etymologies (cf. Gonzalo Rubio, Language 74.656–57, 1998), Saul Levin notes that ‘Few if any [of the comparisons presented in vol. 1] can be securely traced back to an ancestral proto-language’ (332) and acknowledges that he is postulating a lengthy period of contact between ‘Semites’ and ‘certain branches of IE’ rather than common origin (533). This is perhaps a more reasonable explanation for some of the resemblances he discusses. No time or place for this contact, however, seems to be suggested. So it is not immediately apparent why the most relevant comparisons would be between, on the one hand, Masoretic Hebrew (its vocalizations recorded in the late first millennium ad) and Classical Arabic (the language of the Qur’ān and associated documents, from the same period), and, on the other, Classical Greek and Sanskrit (from the last few centuries bc, though not surviving in contemporary manuscripts). Proto-Semitic and Proto-Indo-European are not acknowledged.

Chapter numbering continues from the previous volume: Ch. 6, ‘The structure of roots and of uninflected words’ (1–57); Ch. 7, ‘Stative inflections’ (58–110); Ch. 8, ‘Inflections of active verbs and verbal [End Page 536] nouns’ (110–93); Ch. 9, ‘Case-endings and other suffixes of nouns and adjectives’ (194–282); Ch. 10, ‘Syntax’ (283–331); Ch. 11, ‘Corresponding consonants’ (332–472); Ch. 12, ‘Vowels and suprasegmental sounds’ (473–525); Ch. 13, ‘Epilogue: Echoes of prehistoric life and culture’ (526–44). This last is the most interesting chapter, an ‘afterthought’ (viii), drawing on both texts and etymologies for inferences about the nature of the relevant ancient societies. One can dip into this volume at any point to find a fascinating collection of data and coincidences, but nowhere is any systematicity of correspondence demonstrated. Since the use of reconstructions seems to be systematically excluded, this is not surprising. Even if some number of the similarities collected did represent ancient borrowing or common descent, it is most unlikely that this could be detected in attestations of languages representing millennia of intervening development. In this regard, note that An Indoeuropean classification: A lexicostatistical experiment by Isidore Dyen, Joseph B. Kruskal, and Paul Black (Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 82/5, 1992), which used only modern languages in an attempt to evaluate the usefulness of its method for language families lacking historic data, identified the Iranian and Indic groups, but not Indo-Iranian.

The book is rendered difficult to use by some of the author’s stylistic choices: (i) highly detailed, not to say fussy, transliterations of every example (it is probably almost as easy just to learn to read the four languages’ scripts as to try to interpret the romanizations); (ii) a Devanagari font that makes every akṣara a separate unit on the page; and (iii) reference citations via an idiosyncratic scheme consisting of author’s name and pairs of letters from words in the title (even using ZeVeSp for the journal universally known, no more perspicuously, as KZ, Kuhn’s Zeitschrift) and, for works cited once, via conventional bibliographic footnotes. If the index of modern authors (546–48, compiled by J. P. Brown) is complete, several of the works in the list of abbreviations (xi–xvii) are not cited at all.

Peter T. Daniels
New York City


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