- Calvert Ward Watkins
Calvert Watkins, a towering figure in historical and Indo-European linguistics and president of the LSA in 1988, died unexpectedly in Los Angeles on March 20, 2013, a week after his eightieth birthday. At the time of his death he was Distinguished Professor in Residence of the Department of Classics and the Program in Indo-European Studies at UCLA. He had moved to UCLA after a long career at Harvard, where he retired as Victor S. Thomas Professor of Linguistics and the Classics in 2003.
Though born in Pittsburgh and raised more in New York than anywhere else, Cal (as he was to all who knew him) did not feel himself an unhyphenated East Coaster. His parents, Ralph James Watkins and Willye Ward Watkins, were both from San Marcos, Texas; Ralph was an economist and government advisor whose career brought him north. Cal was intensely proud of his Texas roots, and cultivated a faintly detectable Texas drawl to the end of his days. But he was hardly ever more than a visitor to his ancestral home state. After graduating from Friends Seminary in Manhattan, he entered Harvard with the class of 1954. He stayed there, apart from leaves and fellowships, until the last decade of his life.
Cal began as a prodigy and never stopped being one. Exposure to Latin and Greek in school made him hungry for more, and by the time he was fifteen he had decided to be an Indo-Europeanist. He had already shown himself to be a remarkable practical language learner. Once, when he changed schools and was found to be behind the class in French, the problem was solved by his father taking him to see French movies, making sure he always got seated behind a lady in a fancy hat so that he would be unable to see the subtitles. In later years it was rumored, no doubt apocryphally, that he could get into a train at one end of a European country whose language he did not know and come out at the other end a fluent speaker. As he always emphasized, however, being a ‘linguist’ in this sense had nothing to do with being a linguist in the other. He would illustrate the point by relating how, when the famous Indo-Europeanists Carl Darling Buck (American) and Antoine Meillet (French) met face to face, they had no common language and had to use an interpreter.
Cal’s arrival in Cambridge, Massachusetts, coincided with a significant name change at Harvard. The Department of Comparative Philology had been founded in 1941; it now became the Department of Linguistics, just in time for Cal’s major to be recorded as Linguistics and the Classics. He graduated summa cum laude with a thesis entitled ‘A descriptive phonology of the Gaulish dialect of Narbonensis’. The topic reflected the Celtic interests of one of his Harvard teachers, Joshua Whatmough; the acknowledgments thanked another teacher who was to prove more influential, Roman Jakobson. Part of the thesis was published a year later as an article in Language (Watkins 1955). It is a characteristically structuralist piece, replete with the phonemic charts so beloved of post-Bloomfieldian phonologists. Flashes of the mature Cal Watkins are more easily seen in an earlier undergraduate contribution to Language, a learned and precociously authoritative review of Kenneth Jackson’s Language and history in Early Britain that appeared in the preceding issue (Watkins 1954). [End Page 245]
The academic affiliation of the author of the 1955 article is given as the University of Paris. Whether or not his early experience with French movies had anything to do with it, Cal liked almost everything about France, especially its distinctive tradition in the study of historical linguistics and Indo-European. That tradition, reaching back through Meillet to Ferdinand de Saussure, was preeminently represented in the 1950s by Meillet’s successor, Émile Benveniste, with whom Cal had gone to study at the École Pratique des Hautes Études after his graduation from Harvard. Indo-European (IE) linguistics was then in the throes of the controversy over the laryngeal theory. This interpretation of P(roto-)IE phonology, first formulated on...