Towards the end of his otherwise thoughtful and entertaining review of James H. Dee’s Epitheta Hominum apud Homerum, Donald Lateiner writes: “His work will serve scholars until Greek goes the way of Linear A, Gothic, and Tocharian.”
What could Lateiner possibly have meant by such a remark? Surely this cannot refer to the relative “deadness” of these languages since by any standard definition of the term, ancient Greek is just as dead as Linear A, Gothic, or Tocharian; and Homeric Greek in particular—the subject of Lateiner’s review—has far less claim than, say, Tocharian or Gothic to the status of a spoken language. Nor does one see what possible relevance there could be to the fact that ancient Greek (though not Homeric Greek) has a modern descendant (unlike the three languages Lateiner names), or that the documents in Linear A, Gothic and Tocharian are fragmentary and poorly understood (in the case of Linear A) or else largely involve translations (as in Gothic and Tocharian). Indeed, from the point of view of the reconstruction of the Proto-Indo-European verb, Tocharian provides precious material which in recent years has been emerging as qualitatively more interesting than that provided by other branches of the family: for a rough indication, consider the twelve columns of Tocharian verb forms in the index to the recent Lexikon der indogermanischen Verben (ed. H. Rix, Wiesbaden 1998)—slightly more than the number of columns of Latin forms (eleven and a half), not to mention languages like Old Church Slavic (nine columns) or Old Irish (seven columns). It is no wonder that any Indo-European program worth its salt will regularly offer courses in Tocharian language (UCLA students will have their next opportunity this coming spring quarter), nor is it surprising that the rich documentation of the Tocharian texts has an enormous cultural significance in its own right, as is currently being explored in a UCLA graduate seminar on Central Asian Buddhism, based on textual materials in Tocharian, Tibetan, and Sogdian, among other languages. (The Gothic language materials need no elaborate defense: as the oldest of any of the Germanic literary languages, Gothic traditionally serves as the foundation for the study of Germanic linguistics. And whatever one may think of some of the claims that have been made about Linear A, interesting and important research continues to be carried out on this material.)
From its very beginnings, Indo-European linguistics (as well as related areas like comparative Indo-European metrics and poetics, subjects of no small relevance for Homeric studies) has always been one of the pillars of Classical philology, and it continues to have a great deal to contribute to students and scholars of Classics. But it is no secret that the field—which requires, among other things, a lengthy apprenticeship in many ancient languages such as Gothic and Tocharian—has shrunk considerably, with predictable and increasingly alarming consequences, such as dwindling institutional support. In this sort of climate, many of us who work in both Classics and Indo-European try to do what we can to safeguard and advocate for the discipline. Lateiner’s remark was clearly a casual, if not an almost inadvertent one, and I have no wish to seem excessively cranky or defensive; but the disciplinary marginalization that remark implies deserves explicit disapproval and rejection.