Margalit Fox’s book is about the decipherment of the Linear B alphabet, and the language it recorded. It’s about the work that goes into things like determining if a written system is a syllabary or a pictographic one, and whether a language has inflections at the ends of its words or not. Doesn’t sound very exciting on the face of it, and I’ll admit that I–lover of history and archaeology–tend to get a bit glassy-eyed at the idea of linguistic anthropology. However, the subject of linguistics always reminds me of a little story that a professor of mine once told that aptly demonstrates the importance of understanding the nuts and bolts of how a language works. While documenting the native Mayan language of Quiche, she learned that you could not simply remove the equivalent of ‘to do’ from a sentence with an action, like we might in our own speech…the example she used was “Fanta be tobili ke” which means “Fanta is doing the cooking.” Compare this to “Fanta tobili ke” which meant “Fanta is cooking.” Literally.
This is serious stuff.
This book is also serious, and it is incredibly interesting. There were some parts that delved into the intricacies of grammar and language that were hard for me to follow, but overall it felt somewhat similar to a lot of the fiction books I enjoy reading. There is an ancient mystery that has been waiting years to be solved–a system of writing that bears little resemblance to other systems, and for which nobody knows what language it corresponds to. How do you even begin to decipher it, when you don’t know what the symbols represent, or what they sound like?? There are three very unique people involved in the story of Linear B, and their lives are full of adventure, struggle and, ultimately, a good dose of sadness. There is a lot of guesswork, detection, and puzzle solving that happens, and the end result is a bit surprising but satisfying. For a work about such a specific and detailed area of study, this book is a really quick read, and the people involved are quite deserving of the attention.