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Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World

4.04  ·  Rating Details  ·  1,595 Ratings  ·  189 Reviews
The story of the world in the last five thousand years is above all the story of its languages. Some shared language is what binds any community together and makes possible both the living of a common history and the telling of it.

Yet the history of the world's great languages has been very little told. Empires of the Word, by the wide-ranging linguist Nicholas Ostler, is
Hardcover, 615 pages
Published June 28th 2005 by HarperCollins Publishers (first published February 21st 2005)
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Victor Sonkin
Dec 04, 2013 Victor Sonkin rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, language
This is a learned book. In books of such scope, one is always wary that the author cheats a little here, a little there, making small mistakes where his competence might fail (and in a work covering the complete history of language spread of the whole human race, such instances are inevitable, even if the author possesses a working knowledge of 26 languages, as the back cover rather preposterously claims). Phew.

This said, I could not catch Dr. Ostler by the hand in those instances where I genera
مليون نجمة..
كتاب رائع ويشبع أسئلة كل من يهتم بموضوع تكون واندثار وتميز اللغات وعلاقتها ببعضها..
الشيء المخيف أن عوامل اندثار كل لغة من اللغات تنطبق على اللغة العربية.. كانت تختلف اللغة اللاتينية المكتوبة عن اللغات المحكية التي انتشرت في أوربا.. وتدريجياً مع الحروب والاختلاط بآخرين ثم الانغلاق لكل منطقة ولكل شعب تطورت كل لهجة بشكل مستقل ومع التغيير التدريحي البطيء على المدى الطويل جداً الذي لا يشعر الناس بمراحله أصبحت كل لهجة مختلفة تماماً عن الأخرى وغير مفهومة للآخرين رغم أن الأصل واحد ثم نشأت ال
May 19, 2015 kaśyap rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
History is a lot more fascinating when viewed through the spread of various languages and cultures.

The author here presents his case for the importance of languages in the human history. The distinctive traits of various languages and how they are central to the formation of societies and their role in defining their cultures.

After a brief introduction on the nature of language history, the first half of the book deals with the language spread by land. Starting with the mesopotamian languages of
This is an absolutely fascinating, dreadfully boring book.

If you're at all interested in how dominant languages have spread and evolved, and how they impacted the linguistic development of all other languages in their regions, then stay away. If you're REALLY interested in small details of this subject, then this might be a good book for you.

Nick Ostler has this tendency, also, to latch on to small bits of evidence and make much of it. He's usually clear that he's doing this; he says, "We don't
sahar salman
Aug 02, 2013 sahar salman rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
يعتبر هذا الكتاب من أهم كتب اللغويات الإجتماعية والتاريخية، حيث حافظ على مبدأ الشمولية
وعرض لنا بكل تفصيل الأحداث و الطرق التي تم فيها نشر اللغات البشرية القديمة و الحديثة
كتاب يستفاد منه في هذا النطاق الذي يغطي تاريخ الإنتشار والمفاهيم للعائلات اللغوية كما أنه
زاخر بالمعلومات ليست المتعلقة باللغة ولكن أيضاً باللهجات وكيفية إنتشارها والطرق المستخدمة
قديماً من إستعمار و حروب و إحتلال الأراضي الجديدة و إكتشافها والسيطرة عليها إلى نشر
اللغة بالطريقة التبشيرية كما اعتمدتها المسيحية و اليهودية و الإسلام،
Wow, this book covers a lot of ground and a lot of history. I learned a few things that I'd been curious about for a long time, like why did Ancient Egyptian cease to be spoken? Turns out that when the pharaoh was gone, the heart went out of old Egyptian religion and the language was adopted as a Christian language. Who knew that it does survive, but in the liturgy of the Coptic Christian church in Egypt?

Of course in a book of this scope--nothing less than world wide--there is no way to discuss
Aaron Arnold
Easily one of the most intensely researched popular science books I've ever read (it's right up there with Jared Diamond's works in terms of endless footnotes and works cited), this is an impressively sweeping overview of the history of a dozen of the world's major languages and language families that manages to be interesting even when he's talking about stuff like the developmental similarities between Chinese and ancient Egyptian, or how people decided to use ancient languages like Akkadian a ...more
Aug 02, 2007 Mike rated it it was amazing
If you read only one book on diachronic sociolinguistics, make it this one. Ambitious in scope, it organizes history into successions of language groups rather than the more usual empires and nations.

I enjoyed a short tangent the book took into a comparison of Greek and Chinese conceptions of the 'barbarian'. They were similar in that barbarian was essentially used to describe those not of the civilized center; different in that the Greek version didn't waste much time categorizing barbarian qua
Aug 25, 2009 Pete rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Not a fun book, nor an easy book, and not well edited. But maybe the most illuminating world history book that I have ever read. A hell of a lot more credible than Guns Germs and Steel. You get used to learning the history of the world through the lens of empire. It makes more sense when you understand what kinds of languages people were speaking.

All the same family: Akkadian (Sumerian), Phoenician, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic. 3500 years with surprisingly gradual change.

Kurdish is a Persian l
Jee Koh
Jul 10, 2010 Jee Koh rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Ostler's erudition is encyclopedic. All by himself, he wrote this handy one-volume language history of the world, ranging from Sumerian, Akkadian and Aramaic in the ancient world to English in our contemporary scene, discussing Egyptian, Chinese, Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, Spanish, and Russian in the course of his immense story. The narrative is not one of a triumphal march; rather, it is a subtle plotting of the rise and fall of languages, and so puts the current prevalence of English in much-need ...more
Yazeed AlMogren
أعتقدت كما يعتقد غيري بأنه سيجد معلومات مفصلة عن كيف ظهرت اللغات ومتى بدأ استخدامها لكن وجدت معلومات غير مفيدة وصعبة الطرح، يحكي الكاتب في هذا الكتاب عن اللغات بشكل عام ولا يحكي عن كيف ظهرت كل لغة على حدة أو من أين أتت العربية على سبيل المثال، كما تحدث عن تأثر اللغات ببعضها وماسبب التغيير التي طرأ عليها وأغفل جانب
مهم وجوهري ألا وهو من أين أتت بعض اللغات التي لايعقل أن تنتبت كما ينبت الزرع.
أعجبتني تدخلات المترجم بتصحيح معلومات ذكرها الكاتب في هوامش الصفحات ولكن بسبب كثرتها أحسست بأن الكتاب مصدر غ
Dec 25, 2011 Hadrian rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An impressive and sweeping view of the history of languages throughout human history. It tackles some of the big questions: Why do some languages die out? Why do some flourish, like Chinese or English?

As it turns out, it's a really complex issue. The book starts with the earliest languages (Sumerian, Akkadian, etc.) and moves all the way up through the colonial and modern eras, and speculates on the rise and fall of our languages in the future.

This is dense, but fascinating stuff.
Alex Goldstein
С большими ожиданиями уселся за чтение этой книги, и тем сильнее был облом. Идея автора - рассказать историю основных языков на протяжении человеческой истории. Про то, как языки возникали, распространялись и исчезали, почему у разных языков разная судьба, есть ли общие моменты в историях развития различных языков, каковы фундаментальные причины расцвета и упадка.
Попытка изложить равитие языка на фоне общеисторических событий - идея шикарная но реализована из рук вон плохо. Автор мужик очень эру
Baal Of
Jul 07, 2014 Baal Of rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, history
I took a rather long time to read this book, not because the subject matter was boring, but because it was difficult. It is a combination of history, which is generally a difficult subject for me relative to science or math, and language, a subject on which I am thoroughly ignorant. This book is very broad in scope, and the author is extremely knowledgeable, and writes from an academic position, thus I had to read slowly since I don't have the cognitive framework for a lot of the concepts, and c ...more
Tso William
Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World , written by Nicholas Ostler, is an immensely learned book with an ambitious project: to recount world history from the births and demises of languages. From the cuneiforms engraved on the baked clay in 3000 BC to the gloablisation of English in the twenty-first century, Ostler narrated this 5000 years of history from the perspective of languages – an approach, in his terminology, called ‘language dynamics’.

The narrative follows roughly the ch
Aug 18, 2010 Jim rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
This book will be far more interesting to the intelligent student of history than the student of linguistics, for the simple reason that Ostler uses the evolution of language as a means to examine the arc of history for a number of distinct cultures, rather than studying culture to explain the evolution of language. Thus, the analysis starts from observations about the use of a language like Aramaic, Greek or Chinese over wide areas, and tracks the evolution of the cultures than used them, highl ...more
May 01, 2012 Chris rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
It sent a shiver down my spine to read snippets of poetry written in Sumeria thousands of years ago. We people haven't changed much. Carpe diem, gentle readers, carpe diem! I know I will re-read this book again and again. I found it approachable and exhilarating and not in the least bit dry or politicised. And it made me want to learn Sanskrit. We think we are oh so clever and postmodern, but an epic poem that can be read as *either* of the two great Indian epics simultaneously? Wow!

I had been d
Wafa Suwaileh
أسلوب الكتاب كان موسوعي في أغلب الأحيان الترجمة كانت ممتازة الا انني لم استطع فهم ترجمة بعض النصوص التاريخية و المترجم ايضاً حدد بعض النقاط ووضع رأيه الخاص بالهامش.

بدأ نيقولاس كتابه بأهداء الى زوجته : إلى جاين التي لا غنى عنها الكتاب مقسم الى أربعة أقسام و من أربعة اقسام الى أربعة عشر فصل.

في المقدمة ذكر كيف نشأت فكرة الكتاب و ما الى ذلك
" إذا كانت اللغة هي التي تجعلنا بشراً, فإنها هي التي تجعلنا بشراً متفوقين. فالعقل البشري غير قادر على التفكير بدون ملكه اللغة."

ذكر ذلك في بداية التمهيد

يذكر في ب
This book has achieved the somewhat dubious accomplishment of being both very interesting and rather dry. Language and word books, by nature, I think, are difficult to write in a really engaging manner, particularly ones with a scope as vast as this one. One of the ways of making history books interesting is usually to make them personal, by telling of specific people and their specific experiences, and that's just not possible with a book like this, the same way it is with a book with a narrowe ...more
Jun 05, 2007 Hunter rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: amateur linguists
If you would like to get a better understanding of the factors that determine the proliferation or decline of languages, then this book is for you. You will also glean lots of interesting and insightful factettes. Chapters are logically divided by different language families, so you can read each chapter separately or skip around. It is very densely written (I re-read the first chapter 2 or 3 times just to make sure I got it) and all the different languages' and peoples' names will be overwhelmi ...more
Lauren Albert
An interesting look at what Ostler calls "language dynamics"--how and why languages spread, change, and die. His look at how things could change (how, for instance, English could die off as one of the predominant world languages) is fascinating.

Do languages spread because of trade? Ostler says no and demonstrates with examples of very successful trading language groups whose language did not spread. Do languages spread because of military conquest? Again, Ostler says no and gives examples that
Maysam F
Jan 11, 2016 Maysam F rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
تقييمي له ونصف من .
كانت الخطة قراءة الكتاب على مدى أسبوعين، لكن اكتشفت أن محتوى الكتاب لم يكن بتلك الصعوبة.
كنت أتوقع أن أجد أصول كل لغة وطريقة تكونها ونشأتها بشكل مفصل أكثر، ماوجدته أن الكتاب يسرد تاريخ اللغات وارتباطها بالدول والامبراطوريات. ساعدني ذلك في تكوين خريطة ذهنية لغوية.
من الفصول المثيرة للاهتمام فصل الشرق الأوسط ولغاته، فصل اللغة الاسبانية، فصل اللغة الإنجليزية.
من عيوب الكتاب، أن الكاتب لم يتحرى الدقة في بعض المعلومات التاريخية الخاصة بالعرب والمسلمين خصوصًا، وأنه كان يحاول تبرير
This is a fascinating and thoroughly well-researched book. It does sometimes make generalisations, or sweeping statements that experts might not agree with, but nowhere near as much as such broad narrative histories often do. It is a bit uneven at times, but even then there's a wealth of information in the footnotes and quirky asides that Ostler loves to segue into. Overall, well worth a read if you have any interest in the language history of the world, and you'll get something out of it whethe ...more
Aug 21, 2015 David rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, adult
I had never made some of the connections that are so clearly explicated in this book. For instance, the European development of improved printing technology meant some standardizing of languages which had not had a widely circulated written form. Thus Luther's translation of the Bible not only brought the book, but the particular form of German to begin a process of creating a literate tradition, and a similar event was accomplished in English with the King James version.

I was caught by surpris
Elliott Bignell
Apr 10, 2015 Elliott Bignell rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Ostler has created a history of all of humanity, in so much as such a thing can be achieved in a single volume, on a basis unlike any other I have encountered. His Empires are those of the mind, and I would hazard that they reveal more about us than the more superficial customary treatments of kings and armies. Language is the tie that binds us and forms our minds and societies, and by viewing the ebb and flow of its empires we glimpse the flow not merely of peoples and levers of power but of th ...more
Stan Murai
Nov 18, 2014 Stan Murai rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The author Nicholas Ostler traces the spread of various
languages throughout the history. The rise and fall of
documented languages of the ancient world including the
Semitic languages of Mesopotamia, such as Akkadian and
Aramaic, are examined as well as Sumerian, probably the
oldest recorded language, which still remains a mysterious
language isolate with no known relatives in the past
or present. Many other languages are mentioned. Notably
Chinese has had resilience that allowed it to survive
Sep 02, 2014 E rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
There are various ways to trace world history, but I think this study via the spread of languages was one of the most intriguing I've read. Ostler (who according to the blurb supposedly has a "working knowledge of 26 languages") begins in the middle east, with the ancient languages of Sumerian, Akkadian, Phoenician, Aramaic, Arabic, Turkic, and Persian. This will be of interest to any student of the Old Testament.

Next he turns to the languages of the other great ancient river civilizations--Egyp
Nov 20, 2008 Barb rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: those interested in language and history
Shelves: languages
Wow, this was an accomplishment to get through.

Bringing together language and history, Nicholas Ostler gives a panoramic account of human civilizations. As a novice reader to both linguistics and history, at times I had trouble following the point Ostler was making. Over all, the book sparks reflection on the great achievements of humanity as well as its transience.

If it is too much to tackle at once, the writing lends itself well to reading only the areas of interest.
Appears to be about world linguistic history, what it ends up being is a history of linguistic groups.

There was nothing particularly new in this book but Ostler's book is a good introduction to a theory where languages spread not through conquest or trade, though these have their place, but, rather, through the adoption of a language by the people. The reasons for the adoption may vary--sometimes widely. There is something to the theory but it has the stink of a democratizing ideology that wish
David Montgomery
Jan 21, 2016 David Montgomery rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An interesting linguistic history of some of the world's biggest languages — why they rose, why some of them fell, and why they didn't experience other paths. Full of interesting tidbits, such as the surprising persistence of indigenous languages in the Spanish North American colonies we think of as monolithically Spanish-language today, or the question of why some languages (English, Mandarin, French) spread while others (German, Russian) don't even when speakers of those languages exert politi ...more
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Nicholas Ostler is a British scholar and author. Ostler studied at Balliol College, Oxford, where he received degrees in Greek, Latin, philosophy, and economics. He later studied under Noam Chomsky at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he earned his Ph.D. in linguistics and Sanskrit.

His 2005 book Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World documents the spread of language th
More about Nicholas Ostler...

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“Culture, of course, is an extremely vague word, covering everything from the shaping of hand-axes to corporate mission statements, as well as the finer appreciation of the sonnets of Shakespeare and the paintings of Hokusai;” 0 likes
“Our language places us in a cultural continuum, linking us to the past, and showing our meanings also to future fellow-speakers.” 0 likes
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