Victor Sonkin'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
Dec 04, 2013

really liked it
bookshelves: history, language
Read in January, 2009

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 generally could (his review of the Russian language's imperial thrust, for instance). Not in anything major enough, anyway. Which makes me pretty sure he's got the rest right, too.

Here's an outline of the book's structure.

Part I: The Nature of Language History.
1. Themistocles' Carpet: the chapter begins with a story from Herodotus about Themistocles' refusal to talk to the Persian king through an interpreter and taking his time (a year) to learn the language. One of the few instances of a Greek's attention to barbarian matters!
2. What It Takes To Be a World Language; or, You Never Can Tell.

Part II: Languages by Land
3. The Desert Blooms: Language Innovation in the Middle East.
Sumerian as the first classical language (i.e. the language used in prestige contexts when it's no longer used in everyday life). Akkadian and its model of literacy. Aramaic: Interlingua of western Asia. Here, I was fascinated to read a passage from the Old Testament about an enemy force speaking Hebrew to the Jewish commanders, and the Jews asking them to switch to Aramaic so that rank and file wouldn't understand.
Turkic and Persian, outriders of Islam.
4. Triumphs of Fertility: Egyptian and Chinese. A long and a bit over-laborious comparison between the 'careers' of Egyptian and Chinese: dissemination by land, hieroglyphic script, long-term continuity.
5. Charming Like a Creeper: The Cultured Career of Sanskrit. Sanskrit as one of the few 'world' languages mostly spread through scholarship and education rather than by sword.
6. Three Thousand Years of Solipsism: The Adventures of Greek. Greeks' indifference towards other languages. Three waves of Greek spreading: colonization, war (Hellenistic), culture (Roman). Decline and reversal.
7. Contesting Europe: Celt, Roman, German and Slav. The curious tenacity of Latin in the West and its relative failure in the East.
8. The First Death of Latin: the transition from Latin to vernaculars.

Part III: Languages by Sea. This is about post-Columbian exploration of the new worlds in Asia and America.
9. The Second Death of Latin.
10. Usurpers of Greatness: Spanish in the New World. Here, it was a surprise for me to read to what extent the indigenous languages of (especially South) America were used, even by the Spanish, as linguas francas of the New World; the complete reliance on Spanish came only relatively late; Ostler traces the spread of Nahuatl, Quechua, Chibcha, Guarani, Mapudungun (lenguas generales).
11. In the Train of Empire: Europe's Languages Abroad.
Portuguese pioneers, Dutch interlopers, La francophonie, The Third Rome and the Russias.
Portuguese was widely used but soon abandoned; Dutch had even less success and today is virtually unknown outside Netherlands and Belgium; the French also lost a lot of ground, and the Russians were usually disliked by the people they were subduing; this makes Ostler wary about Russian's perspectives. Russian managed to stamp out the indigenous languages of Asian Russia (behind the Urals, Siberia, etc.); and I'd correct his claim by pointing out that a lot of technical writing, correspondence and business in Central Asia is still conducted in Russian (and there's a special situation in Ukraine and especially in Belorus).
"Curiously ineffective" in spreading their language were the Germans.
12. Microcosm or Distorting Mirror? The Career of English.
Seeing off Norman French; Stabilising the language; Westward Ho! Changing perspective: English in India (an experiment rooted very much in elitism and education; a successful one, if the picture painted by "Slumdog Millionaire" is anywhere near the truth). The world taken by storm. Ostler claims that today's mega-status of English (to the extent when knowing the language is in itself a commodity) is less due to America's dominant position in the world than is usually thought, and most of the groundwork had been done by the British (indeed, apart from the US, the largest English-language countries - India, Australia, NZ, South Africa - are still mostly within the British linguistic sphere).
Part IV: Languages Today and Tomorrow. Here, Ostler reviews
13. The Current Top Twenty
and gives some predictions about their future distribution. His outlook for Russian and other European languages is rather grim (he even foresees a future bilingualism in UK, English plus one of the Asian languages); he advises English speakers not to become dizzy with success, which can be easily overturned; and even the Chinese with its billion speakers may face a decline).

The fascinating story of the world's languages and their imperial history is somewhat submerged under all the details, but the author certainly avoids the Euro-centrism typical of this kind of discussion. It is probably a little longer and more loaded with details than necessary (and it's almost impossible to gloss over the non-essentials: the book's structure does not lend itself to such treatment). But a stunning achievement nonetheless.
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María-lydia Great outline and description. I am still reading it. It is a tour de force about the factors that influence the life and spread of languages. If there are inaccuracies they are not so important. It provides a great picture of what focusing on language can do for old world history.

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