Book Review: Written In Stone

Written In Stone:  A Journey Through The Stone Age And The Origins Of Modern Language, by Christopher Stevens

At its heart, this book is a historical dictionary, but of an unusual and striking kind.  Rather than seeking to go from English words back to their roots, this particular book’s approach is to begin from the words, most of them somewhat primitive, that exist in proto-Indo-European, and then to work their way forward into contemporary words that spring from those roots, at times showing the language modifications that have taken place in the intervening millennia.  Obviously, this book was written as an attempt to popularize the history of the Indo-European languages and to appeal to those who already have some degree of interest in the historical linguistics of English not only to the Anglo-Saxon period but to the areas far into prehistory when a group of people who apparently lived in the steppes of what is now the Ukraine and Southern Russia split apart and wandered in various directions to settle Europe, parts of the Middle East, and South Asia and to spread their language and culture.  Other books deal with that interesting journey and some of its more fascinating mysteries, but this book seeks to look at the aspects of the language spoken by that group that have endured over the intervening centuries.

The book is about 250 pages or so and is divided by chapters according to the starting letter in transliterated Indo-European.  After an introduction the author briefly talks about the stone age words that this book is titled for.  Then she immediately goes into the dictionary of known PIE words.  A brings us Ak, An, Ank, Ap, and Arg.  B brings Bha, Bhal, Bher, Bhleu, Bhrag and Bhur.  There are no C words, but there are quite a few with D beginnings, namely Dam, Dha, Dhar, Dik, Diw, Do, Dok, and Dre.  A couple of E words, Em and Es, and Fri from F then follow.  Gar, Gel, Ghu, Gn, and Gri represent G, Ieh, Neh and Iug deal with yes and no-related words, and Kad, Kap, Kar, Kard, Kas, Ker, Kiv, Kru, Ku, Kwa, and Kwi represent the K words.  Lab, Lag, Li, Lubh, and Luh represent L, Ma Mag, Mal, Mei, Men, Mor, and Min are the M-words, and N provides Nek, Nem, and a discussion on PIE numbers.  AFter this comes Pa, Pe, Pel, Pend, Per, Pi, Plak, Pod, Prei, and Pu for the P-words, Re, Reg, Ru, and Rud for the R-words, and Sa, Sat, Sed, Spek, Sta, Streg, and various swear words after that.  Finally, the author concludes with TAm, Teks, Ten, Ters, Tor, Tu, and Tup, Us, and Wa, Wagh, Wak, War, and Wid, along with some last words, acknowledgments, and incomplete bibliography, and a word list.

What this book attempts, and frequently succeeds in doing is bringing what is thought of as an estoeric and nerdy subject, namely paleolinguistics, and in making it edgy and even perhaps a bit cool.  The author particularly enjoys talking about some of the seamier sides of life and engages in the usual sort of speculation about the behavior of people in the stone age and what the language’s words has to say about their customs and culture.  If you are someone who already has an appreciation of the material discussed here, there is a lot to enjoy and probably at least a few smiles that will be cracked over the author’s imaginative discussion of words and how they are related through their primitive roots.  As a bonus, one gets plenty of discussion about Grimm’s law and various sound shifts within the Germanic and other sub-families of the Indo-European family.  And really, what language nerd doesn’t enjoy that sort of thing?

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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