Calvert Watkins, 1933-2013

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The great Indo-Europeanist Calvert Watkins passed away in his sleep on the evening of March 20. From the Harvard Gazette:

Calvert Watkins, the Victor S. Thomas Professor of Linguistics and the Classics, emeritus, died earlier this month at the age of 80. 

A towering figure in historical and Indo-European linguistics and a pioneer in the field of Indo-European poetics, Watkins presided over the expansion of Harvard’s Department of Linguistics in the 1960s, and served as its chair several times between 1963 until his retirement in 2003. From then until his death, he served as professor in residence at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“He was an inspirational teacher,” said Jay H. Jasanoff, the Diebold Professor of Indo-European Linguistics and Philology and interim chair of the Department of Linguistics. “He was brilliant and all-knowing. He seemed to know every language you had ever heard of, and he produced forms in languages like Sanskrit and Old Irish and Hittite with such panache that if you were interested in those subjects to begin with, he made you more interested.” […]

Watkins’ research was focused on the linguistics and the poetics of all the earlier Indo-European languages and societies, particularly Greek, Latin and Italic, Celtic (especially Early Irish), Anatolian (especially Hittite and Luvian), Vedic Indic, and Old Iranian. Much of his work was also focused on historical linguistic theory and method and Indo-European genetic comparative literature.

Watkins was the author of several books, including, “How to Kill a Dragon: Aspects of Indo-European Poetics,” which was awarded the American Philological Association’s Goodwin Prize in 1998. Other books by Watkins include “Indo-European Origins of the Celtic Verb I,” “The Sigmatic Aorist,” and “Indogermanische Grammatik III/1.”

Watkins contributed to dozens of other publications, and authored more than 150 scholarly articles and reviews, more than 50 of which were published in three volumes as selected writings.  On a more popular level, he was the editor of the Indo-European root appendix to the “American Heritage Dictionary,” first published in 1969. Together with an accompanying essay, the appendix was later published in a separate edition and included in subsequent editions of the dictionary.  Accessibly written, it reached a large public and inspired an interest in linguistics and Indo-European in many casual readers, as well as in some who went on to enter the profession.

The wonderful appendix he wrote for the American Heritage Dictionary used to be available online with the rest of the dictionary's content at, but that's no longer the case. So you'll need to buy AHD in either print or electronic form to get to it. (As Victor Mair has noted, AHD is worth the purchase, and not just for the Watkins appendix.) A bonus of the electronic edition is that the IE roots in the etymologies of words in the dictionary are hyperlinked to the appropriate listing in the appendix (organized by PIE protoform), which is a great way to learn how cognates in English can evolve from a common root along different etymological pathways.

For further thoughts on Watkins, see Languagehat, where I first learned of his passing.

Update, 4/4: On the American Heritage Dictionary blog, AHD lexicographer Patrick Taylor shares some memories of Watkins.

Update, 4/11: Here is part two of Taylor's recollections of Watkins.


  1. Victor Mair said,

    March 29, 2013 @ 10:29 am

    He was also a very kind, soft-spoken, and generous man.

  2. Iñaki said,

    March 29, 2013 @ 6:13 pm

    Does anybody know where could we find Watkins´complete bibliography? Is it anywhere compilated?

    [(myl) You could start with a Google Scholar search.]

  3. Nelson said,

    March 30, 2013 @ 8:21 am

    There is a nice reflection on Memiyawanzi, which I think shows how valuable and influential his published scholarship has been. Like Mattitiahu, I regret that I'll never have the chance to hear him speak in person.

    As a minor correction to the Harvard piece, the formatting makes it appear as if 'Indo-European Origins of the Celtic Verb' and 'The Sigmatic Aorist' are two distinct works; they're actually one and the same, 'The Sigmatic Aorist' being the first (and in the event only) part of 'Origins'.

  4. Victoria Simmons said,

    March 31, 2013 @ 3:15 pm

    "The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots" can also be bought separately.

    I was very fond of Calvert Watkins, who visited us often at UCLA, partly for our Indo-European program, and partly because his wife Stephanie Jamison taught there. He was a delightful man. One of my favorite of his phrases–and I laughed every time I heard it–was "X needs Y like a pig needs pockets."

  5. Nelson said,

    April 15, 2013 @ 4:27 am

    Another memorial piece, from UCLA:

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