Review of Yoshida Yutaka's Lectures on Sogdian Grammar

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Despite its being a Middle Iranian language that has been extinct for a millennium, we've often mentioned Sogdian on Language Log.  That's because of its intrinsic linguistic interest, but also because its speakers, as I have often said, were Eurasian Kulturvermittlers par excellence and outstanding socioeconomic entrepreneurs.

Now we have a comprehensive, reliable grammar of Sogdian, which is cause for celebration:

Yoshida Yutaka 吉田豊 2022. Sogudogo bunpō kōgi ソグド語文法講義
[Lectures on Sogdian Grammar]. Kyoto: Rinsen. iv, 500 pp.

ISBN: 978-4-653-04188-7.

Although this hefty tome is in Japanese, Adam Alvah Catt has written an informative review that enables those who cannot read it themselves to get a good idea of the book's contents.

Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae, Volume 76: Issue 1 (March 17, 2023), 165-167



Here I will make available the first, next to last, and last paragraphs of the review.

Yoshida Yutaka’s recently published Lectures on Sogdian Grammar is intended as a ‘handbook’ (p. 500) written in Japanese to introduce students step-by-step to the fundamentals of the Sogdian language. But this publication is so much more than a simple handbook. Compiled and refined over a period of nearly twenty years of teaching Sogdian to students, this book by one of the world’s leading Sogdian specialists is a state-of-the-art compendium of our current knowledge about this sparsely attested language. In addition to unique features such as a detailed introduction to the Sogdians and their language and history, a Swadesh list, a Sogdian–Japanese and Japanese–Sogdian glossary, and separate appendices on ideograms, the Sogdian calendar, names for weights and measures, and loanwords, the various chapters on different aspects of Sogdian grammar are interwoven with citations of the research literature and details about recent advances in our understanding. In numerous places the author also points to gaps in our knowledge, suggesting areas of research for future generations of scholars. Each of the twenty-three chapters of the book is followed by exercises extracted from actual Sogdian texts, and the author often provides Chinese parallels where available and extensive commentary about the contents of the texts. Particularly useful to self-taught students are the author’s suggested solutions to the exercises at the end of the book. For further reading practice, the Parable of the Pearl-borer is included along with facsimiles of the original manuscripts.

The twenty-three chapters above are followed by a number of invaluable sections. First, for further reading practice the Parable of the Pearl-borer is included along with facsimiles of the original manuscripts. This is followed by a Sogdian–Japanese and Japanese–Sogdian glossary with entries given in transliterated Sogdian script along with corresponding forms in transliterated Manichean and Syriac script. The author writes (p. 330) that all of the words that appear in the main text of the grammar are included in the glossary along with other frequently used or interesting words. The glossary alone is almost one-hundred pages in length. Next follow four important appendices: (A) a list of ideograms updated with recent findings from the inscriptions from Kultobe, (B) the various calendars used by the Sogdians along with the Sogdian names for the signs of the zodiac and the days and months, (C) a list of weights and measures along with their Sogdian names and Chinese equivalents, (D) a Swadesh list for Sogdian arranged beside a similar list for Yaghnobi and Avestan; this list is followed by a discussion of loanwords into Sogdian from other Iranian languages, Indo-Aryan, and further languages. Pages 469–480 give a concise overview of the topics covered in the grammar and show the paradigms for various nominal and verbal categories. This is followed on pp. 481–496 with example answers by the author for all of the problems at the end of each chapter. The book closes with a four-page postscript in which the author outlines his career as a scholar of Sogdian and states the motivation for publishing this grammar: to produce a handbook for students that will inspire future research on Sogdian.

Yoshida Yutaka’s new publication is an invaluable contribution in that it combines step-by-step instruction, exercises, a reference grammar, a dictionary, a reader, and a bibliography of research into a single volume. One can only hope for an English version of this book so that it can reach a wider audience.

It would be wonderful if Adam Catt's review and this Language Log post might galvanize someone to undertake an English translation of Yoshida Yutaka's laudable grammar of Sogdian.  That would be sure to lead to a quantum leap forward in Sogdian studies.


Selected readings

[Thanks to Hiroshi Kumamoto]


  1. Chris Button said,

    March 29, 2023 @ 7:45 am

    That section on loanwords in the appendix sounds particularly interesting for my purposes in terms of possible Wanderworts

  2. Laura Morland said,

    March 29, 2023 @ 9:45 am

    As long as we're talking about wandering words, have "penultimate" and "ultimate" wandered out of normal academic vocabulary?

    "Penultimate" is a much nicer word than "next-to-last." It rolls off the tongue so trippingly, and it's a real word, rather than a mashup.

    Sorry to sound like a crank!

    P.S. I'm saving this post to read later, hoping that Martin Schwartz will chime in, in the meantime.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    March 29, 2023 @ 10:53 am

    @Laura Morland

    Thanks for bringing up "penultimate", which was very much on my mind, but which I had to resist the temptation to use so as not to seem unremittingly pedantic.

  4. Scott Hancock said,

    March 29, 2023 @ 11:39 am

    To be fair, "penultimate" is also a mashup, just one made in a different language. The "pen-" component is the Latin word "paene," an adverb meaning something like "almost," "nearly," or "practically" (in its commonly used English meaning).

  5. David Marjanović said,

    March 29, 2023 @ 12:20 pm

    The review is in open access; I recommend it!

  6. cameron said,

    March 29, 2023 @ 12:21 pm

    @Laura Morland

    "penultimate" has indeed wandered pretty far from the precincts of academia – but, sadly, it's widely misused

  7. Chris Button said,

    March 29, 2023 @ 6:23 pm

    In my experience, “penultimate” is pretty common in British English but less so in American English. Much like “fortnight” for two weeks, which does not solely refer to a video game! “Next to last” would usually be “second to last” in British English too, when not using “penultimate” of course!

  8. Chris Button said,

    March 29, 2023 @ 6:26 pm

    It’s a shame the Sogdian grammar is pretty pricey. Although I suppose that’s typical for an academic book on a niche topic.

  9. Thomas Rees said,

    March 29, 2023 @ 7:05 pm

    I once heard “antepenultimate” in speech; I don’t remember the circumstances, but I was living in a college town.

  10. martin schwartz said,

    March 29, 2023 @ 8:29 pm

    @Laura Morland
    I chime in, like a bell?
    Mais tu, chère Laura, est la belle
    et maintenant tu m'appèles
    à quoi? à sogdien? oh, well:
    It's been years, but I still kinda keep a hand in. From Adam Catt's
    remarks, Yoshida's book seems great, and I know he knows his stuff. Hmm, can we say that Sogdian has survived the past millennium, even tho I think it's a threatened language, and has bee strongly influence in its lexicon by Tajik (and other Pamir languages)? Its Sogdic component is VERY conservative, much more than the Sogdian varieties of Turfan-Dunhuang, Mt. Mugh, etc. By the way, many years ago the Buddhologist Jan Nattier distributed bumper stickers reading "Sogdians are everywhere". As for "penultimate", I think it's still often used in study of prosody,
    with regard to syllables. Unremitting fuddydudd that I am, I still use it in various contexts. Re its being widely misused, I recall
    an academic, in an email, using it to mean "the absolutely last".

  11. martin schwartz said,

    March 29, 2023 @ 8:31 pm

    @Laura Morland: Make that "est" es.

  12. AntC said,

    March 29, 2023 @ 9:08 pm

    @DM The review is in open access; I recommend it!

    Seconded. Only three pages, I expect Victor was tempted to quote it all.

    The long paragraph second to third pages summarises the scope of each Chapter: comprehensive coverage, impressive scholarship from Yoshida Yutaka.

  13. gds555 said,

    March 29, 2023 @ 9:32 pm

    I’ve never studied Japanese, but maybe if I start now I can make this book my summer beach reading.

  14. Andreas Johansson said,

    March 30, 2023 @ 1:42 am

    Outside linguistics, I mostly see/hear "penultimate" with the apparent intended meaning "ultimate", which needless to say bugs me badly.

  15. Chris Partridge said,

    March 30, 2023 @ 2:12 am

    Flanders and Swann, "Have some Madiera, m'dear":

    Then she recalled what her mother had said,
    with her antepenultimate breath.
    She who succumbs to the wine that is red,
    must prepare for a fate worse than death!

    (This may be slightly wrong as it is from memory)

  16. Tom Dawkes said,

    March 30, 2023 @ 11:34 am

    Flanders and Swann, "Have some Madiera, m'dear":

    Then flashed through her mind what her mother had said,
    with her antepenultimate breath.
    "O my child, should you look on the wine when 'tis red,
    Be prepared for a fate worse than death!"

    See Proverbs 23:31-2 (KJV)
    "Look not thou upon the wine when it is red, when it giveth his colour in the cup, when it moveth itself aright.
    At the last it biteth like a serpent, and stingeth like an adder."

  17. David Marjanović said,

    March 30, 2023 @ 2:08 pm

    Hmm, can we say that Sogdian has survived the past millennium, even tho I think it's a threatened language, and has bee strongly influence in its lexicon by Tajik (and other Pamir languages)?

    What do you mean? It's dead. Its closest living relatives are Yaghnobī (spoken in one valley in Tajikistan, endangered) and Ossetian.

  18. Chris Button said,

    March 30, 2023 @ 5:42 pm

    @ David M

    Yaghnobi being the modern descendent, no?

  19. martin schwartz said,

    March 30, 2023 @ 5:50 pm

    @David Marjanović and all: Ouch! I omitted writing the intended "Yaghnobi", which is a distinctly Sogdic language, and which is indeed endangered, or "threatened", as I put it. Ossetic is WAY different from Sogdian (and Yaghnobi), and bears the baggage of Caucasic influence, at least phonologically and lexically. Some of today' Central Asiatic languages are arguably closer to Sogdian than is Ossetic, but who wants to argue?
    Martin Schwartz

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