Reviewer reviewed

July 2, 2004

The seasoned author/editor is never surprised to run across a less-than-flattering review. One shrugs it off and moves on. But Jacques Guy's review of The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the World's Ancient Languages (Books, June 18) calls for a different response.

Guy - a French and Australian-trained specialist in a language of Espiritu Santo and other languages of the Pacific - focuses his review on just two of its 45 chapters.

His theme in reviewing Michalowski's Sumerian chapter is that it is difficult for him to understand. Does the problem lie with the chapter or the reviewer? This is not the Reader's Digest version of Sumerian grammar.

It is the most translucent, up-to-date description in English of a knotty grammar, authored by a scholar whose knowledge of the language is unsurpassed. Guy does seem to have found a typo in the chapter - and for this we are most grateful.

Guy's review of Justeson and Kaufman's Epi-Olmec chapter consists simply of a dismissal of their decipherment of the Epi-Olmec script. The Epi-Olmec grammar will undergo a great metamorphosis as documentary evidence grows.

But a rejection of its present analysis would have to be made on a point-by-point basis.

The authors of the remaining chapters are also distinguished scholars of international reputation. Guy dismisses them with: "Nothing in (the encyclopedia) can be fully trusted."

Admittedly, there may be only a handful of living scholars who are able to assess the encyclopedia adequately; but it is curious that this assignment was handed to one who seemingly has no appreciable experience with any of the languages treated in the volume. The responsibility for this lies with The Times Higher .

Roger D. Woodard
Professor of linguistics
Raymond professor of classics
Buffalo University

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