William Thorsen's Reviews > Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World

Empires of the Word by Nicholas Ostler
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's review
Oct 31, 2010

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bookshelves: language, nonfiction, history
Recommended for: glossophiles
Read from November 03 to 11, 2010 , read count: 1

Rating: 3½ out of 5

Imagine a massive smorgasbord that includes dozens of varieties of ethnic cuisine. All dishes are authentically labeled and described in the native language, with by side-by-side translations into English. Then imagine learning that all the food has been prepared, presented, and documented by a single chef.

That is something like the feeling one gets when approaching Empires of the Word, Nicholas Ostler’s astonishingly dense work on languages and their accompanying history. It contains a superabundance of riches that cannot fail to impress.

But one can have too much of a good thing. Of the dozens of language books I’ve read, this one stands out as both the most impressive and the least enjoyable. What impresses most is the sheer amount of information it contains. Unfortunately, the same feature is what detracts from its readability. Dish after endless dish may make you wish instead for a cozy restaurant and a simple, elegant meal.

Now, griping about “too much information” may call to mind the Emperor’s petty complaint in Amadeus, and even merit the same response:
EMPEROR JOSEPH II: Your work is ingenious. It’s quality work. And there are simply too many notes. Just cut a few and it will be perfect.

MOZART: Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?
For there is indeed good stuff in here, as there inevitably must be in a comprehensive, detailed account of the rise, fall, and flow of the major languages over the course of about five millennia with remarkable erudition.

Ostler’s basic thesis is that languages die or thrive for reasons other than we might expect. He then draws extensively on linguistic, cultural, and political history to elucidate the real drivers of linguistic “success,” which have more to do with immigration and luck than military might or political influence.

His demystifying explanation of the rise of English from its humble origins is among the highlights, and the book is worthy of consideration for that alone.

On a larger scale, the book suffers from a fatal disproportion: Ostler’s ambit is simply too large for his ambition. To back up his modest arguments he covers Akkadian, Arabic, Aramaic, Chinese, Egyptian, English, French, German, Greek, Latin, Phoenician, Portuguese, Quechua, Russian, Sanskrit, and Spanish, among others. The knowledge he draws upon to do so is thoroughly astounding, but his judiciousness is questionable, for he appears rarely to have encountered a fact he didn’t think worthy of inclusion.

It may be interesting to know that “in the Massachusett translation of the Bible, the word for ‘quails’ is poohpoohqu-tteh”, that 800 kilometres is equal to 750 vërst, and that were precisely 56 known expeditions by Chinese monks to study literature in India: “of whom thirty-four travelled by sea from Guangzhou (Canton) and twenty-two overland past the Taklamakan desert and the Hindu Kush.” Indeed, such morsels are an interesting part of a reader’s diet, and taken individually each does make some contribution to the author’s argument. But in their thousands they drag the book down to a tedium that can be escaped only by skimming.

The same can be said of the frequent pauses Ostler takes to look at the linguistic features of a languages. His stated aim in the preface is a study of “language history” rather than “historical linguistics”, but he proceeds to indulge in the latter anyway. His digressions into (to take but a few examples) palatalization, affricatives, retroflex and glottal stops, and the pronunciation of dead languages – again, useful information in the right context – often do nothing to advance his historical argument, and the numerous translations he supplies are mostly dispensable.

(Incidentally, I found myself wondering just how authoritative Ostler can be on such a vast range of information. In the two maps of colonial Canada he mistakenly refers to “Robert’s Land” instead of “Rupert’s Land” and (more nigglingly) to the “Hudson Bay Company” instead of “Hudson’s Bay Company”.)

He is at his most readable when synthesizing, explaining, and summarizing than when reciting dry facts. His arguments are generally persuasive, but, in the end, rather underwhelming, considering the mountains of data that have been sifted to arrive at them, and they could have been more effectively advanced by a slimmer, more selective work.

That said, Ostler’s encyclopedic knowledge will not go to waste if one treats the book as one would, indeed, an encyclopedia, and consults it according to one’s linguistic interests.

For my part, I enjoyed the chapters on Latin, English, and Russian, because I could appreciate the minutiae that characterize the author’s approach. (In contrast, the chapters on Chinese and Egyptian were almost unbearably tedious.)

One can then skip to Part IV, “Languages Today and Tomorrow”, and get a summary of the author’s arguments and conclusions in 34 mercifully brief pages.

In other words, judicious sampling of the buffet’s delights may prove more rewarding than polishing it off all in one go.

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