Book Review: Empires Of The Word

Empires Of The Word: A Language History Of The World, by Nicholas Ostler

This is a fascinating book as someone who is fond of language. How is it that language grow and become spoken far outside their native realm, and what is it that allows some nations to thrive, others to change, and others to die out even after they had been strong for a long time. This book explores the factors that explain the facts on the ground when it comes to languages and the depth and range of their speaking. And if I do not necessarily agree with everything that this book says about languages–the author, like many, seems quite interested in disparaging English and seems to have a particularly hostile attitude towards German–there are still some very interesting aspects to this book, particularly the way that the author talks about how it is that religious communities tend to help languages endure and that there is a wide gulf between the rule of elites and the preservation of the language of mass culture which tends to swallow up smaller numbers of elites, as has happened over and over again in the history of China, for example, whose linguistic strength the author predictably praises even if he wonders at how they have managed to preserve an inefficient cuneiform to the present.

This sizable tome of about 550 pages or so is divided into four parts and 14 chapters. The author begins with acknowledgements, a list of maps, tables, and figures, a preface, and a prologue that talks about the clash of languages that has existed in the world throughout its history to the present-day. After that the author explores the nature of language history (I), with a discussion of Themistocles’ Carpet (1) as well as what it takes to be a world language (2), which is hard to determine in advance. This leads to a look at the spread of languages by land (II), with a discussion of language innovation in the Middle East (3), with a focus on Sumerian, Akkadian, Phoenecian, Aramaic, Arabic, Turkish, and Persian. After this comes a discussion of the triumph of fertility and population density with a discussion of Egyptian and Chinese (4), the cultured career of Sanskrit (5), the adventures of Greek (6), and the struggle for European dominance between Celtic, Romance, Germanic, and Slavic languages (7), as well as the first death of Latin (8). This leads to a look at the spread of languages by sea (III) and the second death of Latin (9) as well as the spread of Spanish and the languages it replaced (10), as well as a look at the spread of European imperial languages like Portuguese, Dutch, French, Russia Russia, and German (11). An entire chapter covers the strange career of English (12) before the author closes with a discussion of languages today and tomorrow (IV) with a look at the current top twenty (13) as well as some speculations about the future (14), followed by notes, a bibliography, and an index.

What sort of factors lead to empires of the word? This book explores the history of linguistic imperialism and finds that a few factors have tended to encourage languages to survive. Perhaps unsurprisingly, even if it is not something that is recognized a lot, some languages have done particularly well because they have endured as religious languages, in which category we must consider languages like Pali and Sanksrit as well as Arabic and Hebrew, as well as Ge’ez and Coptic to a lesser extent. Still other languages have spread far and wide because of their prestige, which would include English in the present, as well as Chinese in the past (and perhaps the present and future, despite the difficulties of learning the language for many). The author notes as well that settlers rather than soldiers have done well at spreading languages like Hindi/Urdu, Spanish, and Portuguese, as well as English (into the settler colonies like the United States). The author contrasts successes with failures, and notes how it is that Greek eventually became a national language after having once been a hegemonic language over a large area, and how Aramaic went from a lingua franca to a very obscure and threatened language in the Middle Ages, and what that means about the fate of languages in the future, about which we can only speculate.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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