Cal Watkins

Via John Lawler, a link to the Harvard Gazette story (from yesterday) about the death of the great philologist and linguist Calvert Watkins (on the 20th) at the age of 80. Earlier, a brief notice by languagehat. And now, from Ben Zimmer, a Language Log posting in Cal’s memory. Ben has re-posted the core of the Harvard Gazette piece, from which I’ll extract only these small pieces:

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 [having followed his wife, the Sanskritist Stephanie Jamison, to UCLA].

… On a … 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.

When I was a grad student at MIT, Cal sat in on courses of interest to historical linguists. I was in fact petrified in the first of these when this guy in the class produced remarkable comments, questions, and disputations; eventually, I discovered who he was. I didn’t realize at the time that he was only 8 years older than me. (Academic generations went by fast in those days; when I took my first teaching gig, at Illinois, my grad students were almost all within a few years of me, many older than me.)

Cal arranged for me to have borrowing privileges at Harvard’s Widener Library while I was working on my dissertation, on Sanskrit phonology. And then he was on my dissertation oral committee; the exam was held in his office in Widener. He was wary of generative grammar, but game.

A tough critic but a very nice man and an inspired conversationalist, he eventually became an academic friend. Much missed.


One Response to “Cal Watkins”

  1. Bob Richmond Says:

    Alas, that was just after my time at Harvard – I graduated from the college in 1959. Linguistics was at a sorry pass at Harvard under Joshua Whatmough while I was there – I thought about taking his introductory linguistics course, but when I went to its first meeting I thought he was a complete asshole. (I’ve heard that when his death was announced at the faculty senate that people got up and cheered.)

    I did take phonetics and phonemics from Charles Ferguson, who really shaped much of my interest in linguistics. He was a great teacher.

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