The Tocharian verbal system

The Tocharian verbal system. By Melanie Malzahn. (Brill’s studies in Indo-European languages and linguistics 3.) Leiden: Brill, 2010. Pp. xxviii, 1036. ISBN 9789004181717. $213 (Hb).

Reviewed by Michael W Morgan, Indira Gandhi National Open University

Tocharian, the northeastern-most Indo-European (IE) language family, has only recently come into its own as a mature field of study. Tocharian consists of two fairly different language varieties, Tocharian A and Tocharian B, attested in thousands of manuscript fragments (mostly of Buddhist texts) discovered in the Tarim Basin of Chinese Turkestan in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Thankfully, the longstanding lack of linguistic interest in Tocharian is gradually being remedied, not least with this volume. A revision of Malzahn’s habilitation thesis, this is a complete and thorough treatment of the Tocharian verbal system.

After a brief introduction to the phonological system and sound laws (, limited generally to those which affect the verbal system), the first half of the book systematically presents the verbal system of Tocharian, while the second half is a verbal index or dictionary. The treatment of the verbal system begins with a brief overview. Chs. 3–5 discuss verbal endings, valency, and voice. The interplay between categories of voice, valency, and transitivity in Tocharian are of general theoretical interest.

There then follows a thorough discussion of all Tocharian tense/mood forms. Chs. 7–14 treat the preterit system and Ch. 15 deals with the imperfect. Chs. 16–22 discuss the subjunctive, and the optative is the topic of Ch. 23. Chs. 24–36 examine the present system (355–495). Finally, the imperative is dealt with in Ch. 37.

Tocharian is rich in forms, and as it differs in many important ways from what is generally viewed as ‘standard’ IE, it is especially important for revising reconstructions of the Proto-Indo-European verbal system. In each chapter, both synchronic facts (and disputes) and diachronic developments are discussed. Synchronic facts include a list of all stems belonging to a given valency, tense, or mood class, as well as differences between Tocharian A and B and variation within Tocharian B. In addition to careful summaries of earlier proposals, M also presents her own usually quite reasonable conclusions and does not hesitate to indicate when the question is still open.

The verbal index lists all attested forms of all Tocharian verbal stems, as well as analysis, interpretation, supporting examples, and notes on semantics and etymology. The two halves complement each other perfectly: the first half is organized according to inflectional forms, the second half according to stems.

This volume is a treasure trove of information on the Tocharian verb, and Indo-Europeanists and Tocharian specialists alike will want it on their reference shelves. It will also be a useful reference for those studying the transmission of Buddhism.