University of Texas Linguistics Research Center

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Three decades ago, in 1990, I attended a five-week summer institute on Indo-European linguistics and archeology at the University of Texas (Austin).  The institute was organized by Edgar Polomé (1920 [b. Molenbeek-Saint-Jean, Brussels, Belgium]-2000) and Winfred Lehmann (1916 [b. Surprise, Nebraska]-2000) and was supported by a generous grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.  It seemed like half of the most important Indo-Europeanists of the day paraded through the Institute.

I remember Homer Thomas drawing hundreds of pots on the gigantic blackboard, stretching about 50 feet across the front of the lecture hall and 7 or 8 feet tall, and unerringly identifying their site and culture names, pointing out their relationships by shape and ornamentation.  That was really quite a breathtaking performance, one that went on a whole week for a couple of hours each day, if I remember correctly.

Then young (at that time) David Anthony came to tell us all about horses, wheels, and language across the Eurasian steppe.  Scintillating!

After that was Jaan Puhvel delivering a series of lectures with his inimitable basso profundo and doing a somewhat salacious little jig at the foot of the sloping auditorium hall to explain the Greco-Hittite etymology of "orchestra".

The Renfrews (Lord Colin and Lady Jane) may have stopped by as well, and ditto for the Tocharianist Werner Winter, but I may be confusing the UT Institute with a couple of conferences I held later at UPenn which they did attend.

The Georgian linguist and Orientalist Tamaz V. Gamkrelidze made his case for the Armenian hypothesis of the Proto-Indo-European homeland.  I don't recall that his collaborator, the Russian linguist Vyacheslav Ivanov, accompanied him.

Richard Diebold, generous patron of Indo-European linguistics, also gave several lectures, though he spent much of the time with his lanky frame stretched out flat at the rear of the hall, suffering from severe backache.

Crowning off the proceedings was Marija Gimbutas, who was there not so much to talk about her famed kurgan hypothesis, but rather about archeomythology and the feminine principle inherent in Old European society before the warlike Indo-Europeans impinged upon the continent.  I found Marija's lectures spellbinding, utterly captivating, though not always convincing to my (at the time) relatively androcentric mind.

It was one of the most amazing, intense experiences of my life, not least because the temperature reached over 106º every day for more than a month!  It was so hot that the poor campus squirrels would lie prone on their bellies with their legs spreadeagled to absorb whatever relative coolness there may have been in the earth and look up at me pathetically.  Just to see what it was like, I ran up the steps of the Longhorns stadium.  After about five ups and downs, it seemed as though I were melting.

So, after that summer, I felt like a member of the UT-Austin linguistics family.  I made lifelong friendships and learned a vast amount of vital knowledge about Indo-European language and culture, for which I am immensely grateful to this day.

That is why I feel moved to make this post in support of the UT-Austin Linguistics Research Center (LRC), which carries on the work of Lehmann, Polomé, and their illustrious colleagues.  For instance, Denise Schmandt-Besserat (who made fundamental discoveries about the evolution of Sumerian writing) is an old friend, and I have long corresponded with the Semiticist John Huehnergard and other UT faculty over the years.  There were also other valued UT-A colleagues in Indo-Iranian, African, American, and other languages that I had the pleasure of interacting with.

From their homepage, here's a description of some of the things the LRC does:

Founded in 1961, the Linguistics Research Center (LRC) provides linguistic resources for specialists and non-specialists alike. Over the last several years the LRC has worked to create a robust set of online materials dedicated to the most archaic members of the Indo-European language family, of which English is a member, and the cultures of which they formed a part. We provide these materials freely for public use.

Among the LRC’s online offerings, Early Indo-European OnLine (EIEOL) provides a collection of lesson series serving as linguistic overviews of many of the most ancient Indo-European languages. These series strive to provide an introduction to the basic structures of the respective languages, highlight issues of scholarly debate, guide readers in the reading and analysis of texts, and situate the languages and their documents within their cultural and historical context. Series typically consist of 5–10 lessons, each lesson consisting of an introduction, a reading selection, and a discussion of grammatical points. The series assume no special knowledge of the languages or linguistics on the part of the reader.

The LRC also provides an online Indo-European Lexicon (IELEX). This consists of a computer-generated, hand-edited collection of Indo-European roots and their reflexes in daughter languages. That is, it lists individual elements that have been reconstructed for the vocabulary of the parent language (Proto-Indo-European, or simply PIE) from which all of the Indo-European languages ultimately descend. Each vocabulary element, or root, receives its own page on which we list the descendants, or reflexes, of that root in the various daughter languages within the family.

If you want to study "Early Indo-European Online", here's an Introduction to the Language Lessons by Jonathan Slocum and Winfred P. Lehmann, plus a rich assemblage of ancient language materials.

Clearly, the UT-A LRC is a treasure house of valuable services and data that contribute to the furtherance of a wide spectrum of linguistics research.  Now, however, because of the dire funding situation brought about by the novel coronavirus, its modest budget of less than a hundred thousand dollars is under threat from the university administration, which might lead to closure of this precious research center in the near future.  Because I believe in the work of the LRC, I will make a significant contribution to support them, and I encourage others to do likewise. Here's how to help the LRC survive.

The Director of the UT-A LRC is Hans C. Boas. I will make a followup post about him tomorrow.


Selected readings

[Thanks to Vito Acosta, Craig Melchert, and Hans C. Boas]


  1. Philip Taylor said,

    April 24, 2020 @ 8:32 am

    Donation made, Victor, but I found it rather disconcerting that when I had completed the initial data-entry form and told it that I was in Cornwall, United Kingdom, I then found on the "pay now" form that "Cornwall" had mysteriously mutated into "Colorado" …

  2. martin schwartz said,

    April 24, 2020 @ 7:36 pm

    I've known many, if not most, of the people mentioned,
    but of those no longer with us, I most miss Edgar Polomé,
    a fine scholar and an absolute gentleman, a really good guy.

    Martin Schwartz

  3. Victor Mair said,

    April 24, 2020 @ 9:42 pm

    From Elizabeth Barber (emerita of Occidental College):

    I enjoyed reading that. I knew/know some of those people, plus others like Calvert Watkins, Albrecht Goetze, and Warren Cowgill, from whom I took grad courses. Warren was EXTREMELY knowledgeable, and tended to be very serious– we used to tease him by asking him to produce a laryngeal sound for us. He would draw himself up and produce a sort of choking sound, very solemnly, then look as amused as we were. Of course I knew Marija Gimbutas and Jaan Puhvel quite well, since they were just across the city at UCLA.

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