Лингвистический энциклопедический словарь

Review ¤

Language, Volume 73, Number 2 (1997)

Lingvističeskij enciklopedičeskij slovar’. Editor-in-Chief V. N. Jarceva. Moscow: Sovetskaja ènciklopedija, 1990. Pp. 685. Cloth 12 roubles 15 kopecks.

Reviewed by Alexis Manaster Ramer, Wayne State University

If you start at the beginning of this hefty volume and persist through the three-quarters of a million words or so, you will have gotten a unique perspective on Soviet linguistics just before the disarray caused by the fall of the USSR, as well as a good sense of how the linguistic establishment in Moscow and St. Petersburg thinks about linguistics generally.

Some of the most fascinating information here deals with what may have been one of the few redeeming features of the old Soviet system, the tolerance for autonomous schools of linguistics in the various republics, notably Estonia, Lithuania, Armenia, and above all Georgia. Far less well known in the West than the old Indian or Perso-Arab grammarians, our colleagues working there have remained largely hidden by the fact that they mostly publish locally, in the local languages, which makes their works much harder to find in our libraries than those published in Russia(n). The coverage of this greatly underrated topic alone — under ‘Sovetskoe jazykoznanie’ ‘Soviet linguistics’ and ‘Instituty jazykoznanija’ ‘Institutes of linguistics’ — makes the book worth looking at, despite some startling gaps, e.g. no mention of the Georgian contributions to general linguistics (e. g. Melikišvili 1976).

Naturally, the book also informs us about linguistics in Russia. The historical coverage, especially of the Kazan, Moscow, and Leningrad (St. Petersburg) schools, is extensive, and there are also all kinds of interesting, albeit scattered, information about more recent developments such as Soviet work on, as well as criticisms of, transformational grammar (under ‘Glubinnaja struktura’ [Deep structure]), proposals to bring the calculations of ‘Glottoxronologija’ [Glottochronology], at long last, into agreement with the observed data, etc. This book also offers detailed individual treatments of, among other things, the named sound laws of Indo-European, the language families of the world, some individual languages, and the history of the study of certain language groups, e.g. ‘Kavkazovedenie’ [Caucasian studies], although Koreanology is a notable omission.

The one subject where the book might have been particularly useful, but makes only a moderate contribution, is the Nostratic hypothesis (see the articles by Dybo, Ivanov, Toporov, and Xelimskij). The coverage, while extensive, is uninformative. Dubious claims about Nostratic grammar and chimerical speculations about connections with Niger-Congo and/or Austro-Asiatic are accorded prominent mention, but there is no discussion of the controversy surrounding Nostratic or of the state of Nostratic research in recent decades and almost none of the open problems occupying the few linguists who think actively about Nostratic, e. g. subclassification, the status of Afro-Asiatic, etc.

The Russian linguistic establishment is bitterly and nastily divided on controversial groupings such as Nostratic; as a result, articles written by proponents of such theories whitewash the true state of affairs while those by the other side studiously avoid any mention of such proposals. Consider the bizarrely uneven treatment of scholars associated with controversial linguistic classifications, even when it comes to their work in other areas. In articles such as ‘Illič-Svityča—Dybo zakon’ [Illič-Svityč and Dybo’s law], ‘Zibsa zakon’ [Siebs’ law], etc. Illic-Svityč’s contributions to Balto-Slavic are treated with the same excessive reverence and disregard of criticism (Darden 1989) as his Nostratic work, yet in the articles on Altaic and Chadic, his pathbreaking contributions (1963, 1965, 1966) are ignored. Similarly, the articles on Caucasian languages ignore Nikolayev and Starostin’s (1994) reconstruction of North-Caucasian and Starostin’s (1982, 1984) theory linking Yeniseyan, North-Caucasian, and Sino-Tibetan (which also goes unmentioned under ‘Kitajsko-tibetskie jazyki (sino-tibetskie jazyki)’ [Sino-Tibetan languages].¹

The case of Dolgopol’skij is particularly striking. Although some of his works grace the bibliographies, he is never mentioned in the articles or listed in the name index, his central role (1972, 1973) in the development of Cushitic studies is ignored, and he does not even get to share the credit with Illič-Svityč for coauthoring the Nostratic theory.

The encyclopedia (5) claims to be ‘a systematic compilation of information about human language, the languages of the world, and linguistics as a science’ including ‘the achievements of Soviet and foreign linguistics’ (translation mine). However, it is practically useless with regard to linguistics done outside the former Soviet Union since 1955 or so. Neither Montague nor any other formal semantics is discussed, and generative phonology is hardly mentioned. Generative syntax is touched on under ‘Generativnaja lingvistika’ [Generative linguistics], ‘Glubinnaja struktura’ [Deep structure], ‘Transformacionnyj metod’ [Transformational approach], and ‘Matematičeskaja lingvistika’ [Mathematical linguistics], but these articles would have been inadequate in the 1960s and are embarrassing today. Beyond seeing a mention of the bare terms EST and REST, the reader would have no idea that syntactic theory had evolved between 1965 and 1990. Only Soviet critiques of transformational grammar are cited; there is no discussion, e.g. of Yngve’s or Harman’s critiques, or of relational, generalized phrase structure, (extended) categorial grammars, or unification-based models of grammar.

The strengths and weaknesses can be gauged by the name index: Saussure is mentioned on 71 different pages, just beating out Ščerba (67), Vinogradov (63), and Baudouin de Courtenay (60), who are followed by Greenberg (57), Jakobson (52), Fortunatov (51), Potebnja (46), Trubeckoj [Trubetzkoy] (44), Sapir and Peskovskij (40), Benveniste (37), Meillet (34), Bally (32), Kuryłowicz (31), Šaxmatov and Polivanov (38), V. V. Ivanov (28), Humboldt (36), Jespersen (30), Aristotle and Bloomfield (26), etc. Interestingly, the disinclination to generative grammar is not as strong as the ambivalence about Nostratic: Chomsky (23) placed well ahead of Illič-Svityč (16), who ends up behind Buslaev (19). But generative linguistics, typology, semantics, phonetics, and Indo-European studies are all supposed to have been covered — without a single mention of Kiparsky, Anderson, Bach, Lasnik, Pullum, Gazdar, Keenan, Dixon, Dowty, Thomason, Ladefoged, Fromkin, Schindler, Jasanoff, Cowgill, or the like. Hamp figures primarily as the editor of various compendia. McCawley, Postal, and Bar-Hillel rate one mention each, though Lakoff made it an extra couple of times. Partee’s name occurs only under ‘Imja’ [Noun], next to Montague’s, whose only other mention is under ‘Matematičeskaja lingvistika’ [Mathematical linguistics].

The utility of this book, especially for Russian readers, is further reduced by the fact that the bibliographies omit some of the main works alluded to in the articles. On the one hand, this is one of the few sources which correctly attribute the origin of morphophonemics to Ułaszyn (1927), but it does not give a citation for this almost-forgotten work or for those interesting discussions, mentioned above, of Soviet work on glottochronology (Starostin 1989) and on transformations. On the other hand, the bibliographies sometimes feature titles by important authors who are not mentioned in the articles (e.g. Dolgopol’skij 1984 in the article on Nostratic).

While omissions are legion, I caught few outright factual mistakes, fallacies, or typos. The article ‘Èrgativnyj stroj’² repeats the widely-accepted but incorrect Greek etymology of ‘ergative’ (Manaster Ramer 1994). Under ‘Indejskie jazyki’ [[American] Indian languages], Kroeber is listed as advocating the genealogical unity of all the native American languages, apparently in place of Radin.³ Under ‘Glottoxronologija’ [Glottochronology] we find repeated the widespread but fallacious argument that, since ‘the number of related words which are retained in basic word lists at time intervals on the order of tens of thousands of years is extremely small’ (translation mine), this by itself imposes a limit on how far back in time the comparative method can reach, forgetting that there are also nonbasic words, and that the number of descendants of a protolanguage is also a factor (Greenberg 1987:341–4). On p. 339, col. 2, para. 4, 1. 10, after ‘Менгеса’ read ‘По урало-дравидийскому родству’. Yngve is misspelled in English as ‘Ingwe’ (669), while Lakoff should have been transliterated into Russian as Лейкоф rather than Лакоф) (671).

Overall, then, this book can serve as an important source on the history of linguistics in Russia and her former empire and on a few other topics. Yet it was intended, not for Western linguists, but rather for a broad Russian readership — as a window on the world of linguistics. Since in this respect it fails utterly, I would urge Russian readers (if any of them are looking at this review) to boycott it until a revamped edition appears. Those of us in the West can use it both as a document illuminating the state of Soviet linguistics at a turning point in history and as a source for topics about which we often get even less information otherwise.


Darden, Bill J. 1989. On the relationship between the nominal accent in Lithuanian and that in other Indo-European languages. Chicago Linguistic Society 25(2).56–79.

Dolgopol’skij, A. B. 1969. Nostratičeskie korni s sočetaniem šumnyx soglasnyx. Ètimologija 1967. 296–313.

——. 1972. Materialy po sravnitel’no-istoričeskoj fonetike kušitskix jazykov: Veljarnyj zvonkij v anlaute. Problemy afrikanskogo jazykoznanija, ed. by V. V. Oxotina and B. A. Uspenskij, 197–216. Moscow: Nauka.

——. 1973. Sravnitel’no-istoričeskaja fonetika kušitskix jazykov. Moscow: Nauka.

——. 1984. On personal pronouns in the Nostratic languages. Linguistica und philologica: Gedenkschrift für Björn Collinder (1894–1983), ed. by Otto Gschwantler, Károly Rédei, and Hermann Reichert, 65-112. Vienna: W. Braunmuller.

Greenberg, Joseph H. 1987. Language in the Americas. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Illič-Svityč, V. M. 1963. Altajskie dental’nye: t, d, δ. Voprosy jazykoznanija 6.37-56. .

——. 1965. Altajskie guttural’nye: *k’, *k, *g. Ètimologija 1964.338–43.

——. 1966. Iz istorii čadskogo konsonantizma: labial’nye smyčnye. Jazyki Afriki, ed. by B. A. Uspenskij, 9-34. Moscow: Nauka.

Manaster Ramer, Alexis. 1994. On the origin of the term ‘ergative’. Sprachtypologie und Universalienforschung 47.207-10.

Melikišvili, Irvine. 1976. Marḳirebis mimarteba ponologiaši. Tbilisi: Mecniereba.

Nikolayev, S. L., and S. A. Starostin. 1994. A North Caucasian etymological dictionary. Moscow: Asterisk Publishers.

Starostin, S. A. 1982. Praenisejskaja rekonstrukcija i vnešnie svjazi enisejskix jazykov. Ketskij sbornik, 144–237. Leningrad: Nauka.

——. 1984. Gipoteza o genetičeskix svjazjax sinotibetskix jazykov s enisejskimi i severnokavkazskimi jazykami. Lingvističeskaja rekonstrukcija i drevnejšaja istorija Vostoka: Tezisy i doklady konferencii, 4.19–38. Moscow: Nauka.

——. 1989. Sravnitel’no-istoričeskoe jazykoznanie i leksikostatistika. Lingvističeskaja rekonstrukcija i drevnejšaja istorija Vostoka: Materialy k diskussijam na Meždunarodnoj konferencii (Moskva, 29 maja — 2 ijunja 1989 g.), 1.3–39. Moscow: Nauka.

Ułaszyn, Henryk. 1927. Kilka uwag terminologicznych z dziedziny językoznawczej. Prace fililogiczne 12.405–15.


¹ But it is discussed when an advocate of Nostratic is holding the pen, as in the article ‘Enisejskie jazyki’ ‘Yeniseyan languages’ and (irrelevantly) in the article on Nostratic.

² Russian ‘stroj’ is difficult to render in English: it can refer to a type of language in the old-fashioned kind of typology which recognizes languages as ergative (as in the article under discussion), nominative, ‘active’, or the like, or to a type of sentence pattern (or more properly a type of clause-level construction) which may be found in any language alongside other patterns (as when clauses are constructed ergatively in some tenses but not others).

³ Also, the Greenberg title (1987), which only appears in the bibliography but is never mentioned in the body of the article, is incorrectly given as Languages in the Americas.

One additional complaint is that the index of names does not mark stress, even though in Russian this can differ between different individuals of the same name (e.g. Ivánov or Ivanóv), and in the case of foreign languages, especially English, it can be even more unpredictable for Russian speakers.

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