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Reviewed by:
  • The Cambridge encyclopedia of the world’s ancient languages
  • Benjamin W. Fortson IV
The Cambridge encyclopedia of the world’s ancient languages. Ed. by Roger D.Woodard. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Pp. xx, 1162. ISBN 0521562562. $195 (Hb).

Thirty-five authors have contributed articles on a total of forty-three languages or language families to make up this volume.1 Woodard has selected his contributors well; most are internationally recognized experts, and there will be little surprise in the overall high quality of the chapters. It is a distinct pleasure to read a multiauthored work that is for once not of highly uneven caliber. The descriptions of the languages are full and detailed—a strength especially welcome in the chapters on fragmentarily attested languages that tend to receive short shrift in survey volumes, such as the varieties of Continental Celtic (twenty-three pages). All of the chapters follow the same template (outlined on pp. 4–5): first the historical context of the language is given, followed by descriptions of its writing system, phonology, morphology, syntax, and lexicon, all capped by a bibliography. The sections on the writing systems also set the volume apart from others of its ilk: besides frequently including full charts of the characters in the native scripts, they often give a valuable introduction to the philological issues attending the study of each language. In the case of two of the scripts, the charts were so extensive that they were [End Page 442] made into appendices (Middle Egyptian hieroglyphs, 192–217, and Mesopotamian cuneiform, 281–87).2

Languages that qualify as ‘ancient’, according to Woodard’s introduction, are those attested by the fifth century ad—a cut-off whose arbitrariness Woodard makes no bones about. But he says the choice ‘is somewhat buttressed by quite pragmatic linguistic considerations . . . namely the co-occurrence of a watershed in language documentation. Several early languages first make a significant appearance in the historical record in the fourth/fifth century’ (1–2). Purely practical considerations might have provided Woodard with an even better defense of his cut-off; the book is already long and weighty enough, not to mention expensive.3 A few languages that made the cut-off date were not included in the volume for reasons of meager attestation or because they remain undeciphered (3); these are the subject of the bulk of the introduction (3–15). But some other material was omitted for unstated reasons (perhaps because contributors were unavailable). For example, no Middle Iranian languages are covered except Pahlavi; Parthian, Bactrian, Sogdian, and Khwarezmian, all attested by the fifth century, are not even mentioned.

A few aspects of the editorial side of this project call attention to themselves. It is evident that there was significant delay between the authoring of many of the contributions and the appearance of the volume in 2004. Wilhelm indicates that his Hurrian chapter was finished in Spring 1999 (118), while Pardee mentions that Tropper’s Ugaritische Grammatik (2000) appeared ‘too late to be used in preparing’ his Ugaritic chapter (318). The most extreme case I see is Tuite’s article on Georgian, where it is stated that ‘[m]ost of this chapter was written in 1996’ (987). Nearly two-thirds of the chapters cite no literature published after 2000, and the rest mostly contain only one or two references more recent than that.

The bibliographies are even more inconsistent in their breadth. While certain authors provided only a very basic list of standard reference works, others incorporated dozens of technical articles on very specialized topics. It would have been desirable had Woodard imposed some consistency in this regard. As it stands, some poorly preserved languages or language groups sport very impressive reference lists (Continental Celtic, seventy-two items; Phrygian, forty-eight), while some real war-horses are genuinely lacking by comparison (Sanskrit, thirteen; Gothic, twelve; Latin and Attic Greek, both marginally better at twenty-eight). Elamite with 107 entries has the longest bibliography in the volume, contrasting markedly with eight for Hurrian and eleven for Urartian (each of which is given a chapter fully two-thirds the length of the Elamite chapter).4

Clearly a work of this scope is a...


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