James'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
Jul 27, 11

A book mainly in the category of linguistics. It begins well, with a fascinating mix of ancient languages and cultures, exactly the kind of multifarious amalgamation I like. As Ostler proceeds to more modern languages, political commentary starts to accompany the linguistics, and of a decidedly anti-Western sort (i.e. in terms of selection: the West had its share of imperialism and evil, but all other civilizations Ostler tends to whitewash or ignore). I expected such asides in a book with “Empire” in the title, but he overdoes it. By the end, it got to be disruptive of the book’s flow.

Ostler apparently fashions himself a theologian as well as a philosopher, for on p542 he writes: “spiritual…revelations are always local, even if they claim universal validity.” I suppose I should have expected as much from anyone who studied under Noam Chomsky, but seriously, stay in your field, man. A few more citations of the silliness/bias: calling the US a global bully (p544), getting in a dig against the ignorant masses who fail to fund scientific research (p546), referring to himself as “we,” calling the biblical account of Babel “myth” (p558), and warning that if the forces of closed-mindedness, e.g. supporters of creationism, “were to bear down on [society’s] freer thinkers” (i.e. the anointed empiricists), then other countries might protect their own knowledge by eschewing English, so as not to contract the virus of “oracularism.” Or something. (p546)

Despite the detractions, I have not yet read any better broad sampling of world languages, ancient and modern.

Linguistics: 3.5 stars

Politically Subjective Asides (semi-pervasive): 1.5 stars

Theological Straying (a few sentences): 1 star

Total: 3 stars


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Chris That's weird, I am generally very sensitive to gratuitous political commentary and found this book refreshingly free of it, especially coming from a student of Noam Chomsky's! I thought the treatment of the Catholic Church and the British Empire was much more even-handed than how they are usually portrayed in the 'mainstream media'.

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