Book review: Written in Stone, by Christopher Stevens

“Written in Stone. An entertaining time-travelling jaunt through the Stone Age origins of our modern-day language”
by Christopher Stevens
Virgin Books, October 2014
Hardback, 13.3 x 20.5 cm (5.2 x 8.1 in), 272 pp., £12.99, US$27.95 (due 15 November 2015)
ISBN 978 0 75355 521 7
Available for Kindle (£8.99), and in the iTunes Store (£8.99).

This pocket book sets out to illustrate using current words in English, and a selection of other modern and ancient languages, how proto-Indo-European (PIE) word roots have greatly influenced our lexicon. And in a sufficiently lighthearted and entertaining way that its publisher classifies it somewhat cryptically as ‘Language/Humour’.

Stevens sets out the background in a nine page introduction which seems quite promising, if a little awe-struck. He commits the common error of misunderstanding what DNA is, in writing that PIE words “are the DNA of English: the genetic basis of everything we speak and write.” However he reassures us that “by discovering these primal words” … “we gain an entirely fresh perspective on how we speak and write.”

Although this brief introduction paints some vivid pictures, it is careful to avoid explaining the PIE theory. For no matter how excited you can get about efforts to discover the ultimate ancestor of the whole family of Indo-European languages, from Albanian to Sanskrit, there is no getting away from the fact that this is all theory. However plausible the whole theory might be, there remains considerable controversy among scholars about details, including the word roots which fill most of this book, and even such vital information such as where (if ever) PIE was actually spoken.

Stevens also curiously refers to the process of postulating these word roots as one termed by “scientists” as “back-engineering”. I take this as a reference to reverse-engineering, which is used by computer hardware and software engineers for quite different purposes, and not, as he writes “reverse stepping through evolution”. Many readers would also have benefitted from some insight into how researchers over the last couple of centuries have come to re-assemble bits of a language that died out long before it could be recorded.

The rest of this book consists of 88 (plus numbers and “swear words”) different PIE word roots, each followed by two or three pages illustrating how they might have evolved into modern English words.

At least that is what it should have done. Unfortunately Stevens is easily seduced to write about other things too. The root ar appears under dhar, for example, and some typos have crept in to confuse bhar and bher, for instance. Even when you think that he is on track, he manages to stray. Under bhal, to blaze, he softens the initial consonant to turn it into ful, as in fulgent. This leads him to a quotation from Milton, which mentions Beelzebub, which in turn leads him to write about Lucifer and its use as slang for a match. Lucifer in turn leads back to the roots luh and bher (or was it bhar?), and bhal has become a distant glimmer.

(This reminds me of the old joke about why fire engines are red: red is a primary colour. The Russians are Reds. The Russians fought the Finns. Fish have fins. Fish swim in the sea. Queen Elizabeth the First ruled the Seven Seas. Rulers are marked with feet and inches. There are 12 inches in a foot. 8 + 4 = 12. Fire engines have four wheels and carry eight men. Therefore they must be painted red. I apologise, but it just had to be told.)

If the entries were not quite so word-dense, this meandering could add to the entertainment, but Stevens works to a formula whereby the number of words used to illustrate the influence of PIE must determine our level of entertainment. Sections contain not so much a stream of words, but torrents. When some explanations are incomplete, this can become mystifying if you do not already know some of the non-English languages used in his examples of evolution.

So the PIE root bhrag, to break, also has its leading consonant soften in Latin to frag, which is then transmitted into the Latin infinitive frangere. The reader without recollection of Latin will then be puzzling how the n got there, and what that might have to do with the English word fraction. Of course if you decline frangere it turns into fractum, a crucial piece of information that is unfortunately withheld. This is repeated with the root dik, to point to, which mutates to index. At least here Stevens gives the clue “How is index a dik word? Well, it’s Latin, and the plural is indices.”

Other leaps are more opaque. Under dhar, to hold, which also includes the root ar, we leap to thrones, firmus, and affirm, and there I am afraid it all started to get a bit blurry and confuddling. A similar leap occurs under es, to exist or be, which shoots off to ontos, entity and ontology.

I am not a PIE scholar, but some of his claims (admittedly given with warnings of heightened uncertainty) seem a bit far-fetched: for example the root arg giving rise to elektron, the Greek for amber, hence electricity. These may result from his sources: the most frequently cited being Walter Skeat’s Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, dated 1888. Not only are there several more recent and better-accepted reference works on etymology, but there is a huge tranche of literature on PIE and its proposed roots which seems to have been ignored.

But this is perhaps being far too harsh to a book which sets out to entertain. And entertain it does, with its occasional humorous anecdotes, usually derived from Stevens’ other publications on Classic British entertainment shows, and Kenneth Williams in particular. (British readers may recognise the author as the TV critic for The Daily Mail newspaper.)

If you want a breathless scramble through some speculative etymology of hundreds of English words, best dipped into in small doses, then this book might appeal to you. If you want an accessible introduction to the Indo-European family, or something of similarly lasting value, then you should pass it by.

My copy will not remain unused, but this book leaves me with a feeling of sadness that it was not what it could have been. If only he had limited himself to a handful of words, traced through some intermediate linguistic history, and some parallel evolution in other languages in Indo-European, this could have been compelling to a much wider readership, and given real insight into language history.