Monday, June 27, 2022


Imperishable Fame

Calvert Watkins (1933-2013), How to Kill a Dragon: Aspects of Indo-European Poetics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 12-13:
Rigvedic ákṣiti śrávaḥ (1.40.4b, 8.103.5b, 9.66.7c), śrávaḥ ... ákṣitam (1.9.7bc) and Homeric κλέος ἄφθιτον (Il. 9.413) all mean 'imperishable fame'. The two phrases, Vedic and Greek, were equated by Adalbert Kuhn as early as 1853, almost en passant, in an article dealing with the nasal presents in the same two languages.1 Kuhn's innovation was a simple one, but one destined to have far-reaching consequences. Instead of making an etymological equation of two words from cognate languages, he equated two bipartite noun phrases of noun plus adjective, both meaning 'imperishable fame'. The comparability extended beyond the simple words to their suffixal constituents śrav-as- a-kṣi-ta-m, κλεϝ-ες ἀ-φθι-το-ν.2 What Kuhn had done was to equate two set or fixed phrases between two languages, which later theory would term formulas. Thus in M.L. West's somewhat lyrical words (1988a:152), 'With that famous equation of a Rig-Vedic with a Homeric formula... Kuhn in 1853 opened the door to a new path in the comparative philologist's garden of delights.' The equation has itself given given rise to a considerable literature, notably Schmitt 1967:1-102 and Nagy 1974; it is discussed at length with further references and the equation vindicated in chap. 15.

1. KZ 2.467. The journal, Zeitschrift für Vergleichende Sprachforschung, was founded by Kuhn only the previous year, and for the first hundred volumes of its existence was so abbreviated, for "Kuhns Zeitschrift". With volume 101 (1988) it became Historische Sprachforschung (HS).

2. The identity of the equation could be captured by a reconstruction reducing each of the two to the same common prototype. Historically the first reconstruction in Indo-European studies, with precisely the declared aim of capturing the common prototype underlying the feminine participles Greek -ουσα and Indie -antī, had been made by August Schleicher only the year before Kuhn's article, in the preface to Schleicher 1852.
The Indo-European origin of the Homeric phrase is disputed by Margalit Finkelberg, "Is κλέος ἄφθιτον a Homeric Formula?" Classical Quarterly 36 (1986) 1-5, and "More on κλέος ἄφθιτον," Classical Quarterly 57 (2007) 341–350, both reprinted in her Homer and Early Greek Epic (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2020), pp. 3-8 and 66-77. For a defence of the Indo-European origin see Katharina Volk, "κλέος ἄφθιτον Revisited," Classical Philology 97 (2002) 61–68.

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