Stevens (Thirty Days Has September: Cool Ways to Remember Stuff, 2008) proves etymology remains a lively pursuit in this engrossing, sometimes-startling dissection of Indo-European, an ancient language that is the basis for half of the world's modern tongues.
Combining the dexterity of a linguist, a philologist's passion for the influence of words on cultural history, and a taste for the bizarre, as befits a TV critic for London's Daily Mail, the author takes us on a detailed tour of a language that is profoundly alive in our everyday speech and literature. He breaks down and analyzes its DNA, engaging in some fascinating speculations along with the more concrete reportage. Of all the languages of Europe and the Americas (including Latin and Greek), only a handful, including Basque and Hungarian, are not rooted in Indo-European. First spoken in Stone Age times 6,500 to 8,000 years ago and thought to have originated with Kurgan people on the shores of the Black Sea around 4500 B.C.E., many Indo-European words have remained unchanged in the present day—or are so little altered that readers will experience aha moments on every page. Equally surprising are the radical changes in meaning familiar words have undergone over the centuries. The book is nothing if not comprehensive, perhaps too much so. Though the chapters are punchy and brief, there is the sense that the book is somewhat overfurnished and presented in an unvarying style that, were it not for the compelling subject, would grow monotonous and wearisome. There are also some careless errors and dated notions sprinkled around. Nonetheless, such a book is quite an undertaking, and the author deserves credit for having approached it with the requisite seriousness, despite some spasms of uneven humor.
This study of Indo-European's primal building blocks and their interactions should be irresistible to the layman or devotee of origins. Stevens, an adventurer in language, demonstrates considerable prowess (from Es, to exist) in making the journey both edifying and entertaining.