Speaking in Tongues: The ancient, tangled roots of modern language

  • 2016-01-07
  • The American Scholar

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.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Paolo Neo