Speaking in TonguesPrint
The ancient, tangled roots of modern language
By Michael Upchurch
December 7, 2015
Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages by Gaston Dorren, with contributions by Jenny Audring, Frauke Watson, and Alison Edwards; Atlantic Monthly Press, 303 pp., $25
Written in Stone: A Journey through the Stone Age and the Origins of Modern Language by Christopher Stevens; Pegasus Books, 272 pp., $27.95
Our native language can be like a well-worn shirt, so comfortable that it’s easy to forget one is wearing it. But all permutations seem possible with language once we’ve been jarred out of our own. With the help of polyglots and linguists, we can even begin to make sense of the babel.
Two new books provide the lay reader with lively tours through the mysteries of language. Dutch writer Gaston Dorren’s Lingo serves up story after story about linguistic differences. He notes how the definite article (“the”) is attached to the ends of nouns in Romanian, Bulgarian, and Albanian rather than in front of them as a separate word. He suggests that Icelandic has stayed so unchanged over the centuries thanks to its “monolingual environment, strong social networks and perhaps the absence of a youth culture.” And he explains why, if we want to say “I call her” in Basque, we’ll wind up saying something that translates literally as “Me calls she.”
In British journalist Christopher Stevens’s Written in Stone, the emphasis is more on parsing dozens of specific word connections in dozens of languages. He can tell you how the Indo-European root word prei (for first) gave rise to English’s prize, praise, and privilege—or how, less obviously, sta (for stand) connects with destiny, via Latin, and with oust, via Old French.
Both books deliver their goods with a sly or goofy sense of humor. And both glory in “the amazing pliability of language,” as Dorren puts it. Reversals in meaning, changes of connotation, great vowel shifts, and morphing consonants are all part of the game.
Dorren’s book makes the better starting place, if only because it provides more thorough context for the stories behind the languages. The book begins by stating a central Anglophone trait: “The attitude of English speakers to foreign languages can be summed up thus: let’s plunder, not learn them.”
So what exactly are we plundering? Proto-Indo-European—PIE, as it’s abbreviated—“was spoken by a people whose name we don’t know,” Dorren tells us, “perhaps sixty centuries ago.” It gave rise to the Germanic, Slavic, Romance, Iranian, and Indian (Hindi, Bengali) language families, along with smaller Albanian, Armenian, Greek, Baltic, and Celtic branches. The development of each of these far-flung tongues, he explains, worked “a bit like the game of telephone: the last player hearing something quite different from what the first actually said.” By identifying patterns of how languages changed over the centuries, he adds, “you can work your way back to the original word.”
Linguists have uncovered a trove of information this way, but their phonetic-syntactic notation system isn’t exactly friendly to language-curious amateurs. Tongue, for example, is written in PIE as *dṇǵhwéh2s, which, Dorren admits, is “rather abstract.” Here’s where Lingo steps in to help. For the casual logophile, the book is rich with surprises, starting with the assertion that Lithuanian is the living language closest to PIE. Indeed, it was a Lithuanian linguist, Marija Gimbutas (1921–1994), who identified the steppes bordering the Black and Caspian seas as the likely point of origin for the Indo-European language families. (“Though her theory is not entirely uncontroversial,” Dorren advises us, “the gist of it has gained wide acceptance.”)
Language change, he observes, is best facilitated by lack of communication. Thus the fall of the Roman Empire gave rise to many different Romance languages. “Every last village had its own village Latin,” Dorren says. And with Roman administrators and soldiers no longer coming through to impose their cultural order on the former provinces, these dialects began to evolve into separate tongues.
Mountainous regions with isolated valleys, Dorren points out, are particularly disposed to going their own linguistic way. In Norway, that has resulted in governmental sanctioning of “two official sets of spellings (plus some unofficial sets), with differences so substantial that there are even Norwegian-Norwegian dictionaries.”
Other surprises: “English is the only European language with no diacritical marks, with the exception of occasional loanwords” (French borrowings such as “façade,” “café,” and “papier-mâché”). Spaniards produce more syllables per second (7.82) than English speakers (6.17). (“Automatic weapons like Uzis and Kalashnikovs,” Dorren adds helpfully, “fire about 10 rounds per second.”) And the revival of Irish Gaelic isn’t the homogeneous affair you might imagine. As one Irish linguist recently observed, “Urban second-language speakers had trouble understanding native speakers, whereas native, mostly rural speakers found the Irish of urbanites jarring on the ear.”
Because Dorren’s focus is on Europe rather than PIE per se, he includes chapters on Basque and Finno-Ugric languages. There, other surprises abound. Finnish and Hungarian may be related—but they’re not mutually intelligible because they’ve developed separately over the past 4,000 years.
In Written in Stone, Stevens sometimes refers to the big picture. “One of the reasons that Indo-European took hold across half the world,” he writes, “was that its words built on each other, like Lego.” But he generally focuses on PIE language roots—for instance, when exploring mag (for mighty). “The most important sound bite in a Roman speech,” he says, “was the maxima sententia, which gives us maxim. A Roman teacher was magister, which not only becomes magistrate but also master and mister, as well as mistral—the dominant wind.”
Stevens casts just as wide a net in dissecting penke (for five). “It’s hard to see the connection straight away,” he admits, “between penke and five, even when the ‘p’ shifts to ‘f.’ But ‘fenke’ is very like finger, and of course there are five of them (counting the thumb) on each hand. … The Greek five was pente, which gives us the five-sided US government building, the fiftieth day after Easter, the first five books of the Bible and a Roman slave galley with fifty oars—Pentagon, Pentecost, Pentateuch and penteconter.”
Reading entries like these from cover to cover can be like gorging on candy. But the book deserves a place of honor in anyone’s house—preferably near “the throne.” This one’s going straight into my bathroom library, where I can enjoy it one etymological tidbit at a time.
Michael Upchurch is the former staff book critic of the Seattle Times. He is the author of the novels The Flame Forest and Passive Intruder.