Campus & Community

Calvert Watkins dies at 80

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Pioneer in Indo-European linguistics and poetics, taught at Harvard for decades

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.

“He was an inspirational teacher,” said Jay H. Jasanoff, the Diebold Professor of Indo-European Linguistics and Philology and interim chair of the Department of Linguistics. “He was brilliant and all-knowing. He seemed to know every language you had ever heard of, and he produced forms in languages like Sanskrit and Old Irish and Hittite with such panache that if you were interested in those subjects to begin with, he made you more interested.”

Taking a course with Watkins as an undergraduate, Jasanoff said, inspired him to pursue Indo-European linguistics. Watkins was his doctoral advisor and mentor, a fact Jasanoff acknowledged in the preface of his most recent book.

“My debt to my teacher — now my colleague — Calvert Watkins is of a different sort,” Jasanoff wrote. “No one familiar with his writings on the Indo-European verb will fail to see how deeply they have influenced mine, even on points where we disagree. Without his ‘Celtic Verb’ and his ‘Geschichte der Indogermanischen Verbalflexion,’ this book could never have been written, and without his example I would never have learned what constitutes a problem worth working on, and what constitutes a solution worth looking for.”

Richard Thomas, the George Martin Lane Professor of the Classics and Harvard College Professor, joined Harvard’s Classics Department in 1977, and formed a fast friendship with Watkins that would endure for the rest of his life.

“Cal Watkins was a man with a tremendous intellect and a tremendous personality, and a good heart. It is hard to think a person so alive is no longer with us,” Thomas said. “He was Harvard’s Indo-European guru, the glue that held together scholars and teachers across the University, and was immensely proud of the generations of students he trained who now hold positions in Indo-European and historical linguistics across the country.

“His departure 10 years ago for Los Angeles, where his Sanskritist wife, Stephanie Jamison, took up a professorship at UCLA, was much lamented by colleagues and students alike,” Thomas continued. “He was an avid gardener, in North Cambridge, in his farm in Vermont, and in the recent years in Los Angeles. Travel, food, drink, and companionship, with his beloved Stephanie, with family, friends, and the family of friends — he was my daughter’s godfather — these were what occupied him in his leisure. And even at leisure, his mind remained engaged with the issues of language and linguistic culture that made him such a bright star in our firmament. Those lucky to have been part of his world will cherish our memories.”

Watkins spent nearly his entire academic career at Harvard. He was a member of the Harvard Class of 1954, and was awarded a Ph.D. in linguistics in 1959. He was also a member of the Society of Fellows, and taught exclusively at Harvard until his retirement and his move west.

Watkins’ research was focused on the linguistics and the poetics of all the earlier Indo-European languages and societies, particularly Greek, Latin and Italic, Celtic (especially Early Irish), Anatolian (especially Hittite and Luvian), Vedic Indic, and Old Iranian. Much of his work was also focused on historical linguistic theory and method and Indo-European genetic comparative literature.

Watkins was the author of several books, including, “How to Kill a Dragon: Aspects of Indo-European Poetics,” which was awarded the American Philological Association’s Goodwin Prize in 1998. Other books by Watkins include “Indo-European Origins of the Celtic Verb I,” “The Sigmatic Aorist,” and “Indogermanische Grammatik III/1.”

Watkins contributed to dozens of other publications, and authored more than 150 scholarly articles and reviews, more than 50 of which were published in three volumes as selected writings.  On a more 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.

Watkins was also particularly active in the academic world, serving as president of the Linguistic Society of America in 1988, and was an honorary member of the Royal Irish Academy, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a member of the American Philosophical Society, a corresponding fellow of the British Academy and of the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, correspondant etranger, associé etranger, membre de l’Institut. He gave the Gaisford Lecture by invitation of the faculty of Classics of the University of Oxford in May 2000.

Watkins is survived by his wife and by four children, Cynthia Watkins, David Cushman, Catherine Cushman, and Nicholas Watkins, and by eight grandchildren. Plans for a memorial service are not known at this time.