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Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World

4.05  ·  Rating details ·  2,516 ratings  ·  283 reviews
Nicholas Ostler's Empires of the Word is the first history of the world's great tongues, gloriously celebrating the wonder of words that binds communities together and makes possible both the living of a common history and the telling of it. From the uncanny resilience of Chinese through twenty centuries of invasions to the engaging self-regard of Greek and to the struggle ...more
Paperback, 615 pages
Published June 27th 2006 by Harper Perennial (first published February 21st 2005)
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Victor Sonkin
Mar 08, 2009 rated it really liked it
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
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
Jee Koh
Jul 10, 2010 rated it really liked it
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
Oct 17, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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
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
Aug 25, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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
Mohammad Rameez
“Our language places us in a cultural continuum, linking us to the past, and showing our meanings also to future fellow-speakers.”
― Nicholas Ostler, Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World
An excellent reading. Specifically the section about native indian is very informative. Provides a clear picture why a language becomes widely used.
Aaron Arnold
Apr 12, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Jan 18, 2020 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, non-fiction
I bought this thinking it would be philological in nature, but it turned out to be something else entirely; a history of the spread (and decline in many cases) of the use of major languages throughout history. Traditional philology gets only fleeting mentions. If the author is to be believed, such a thing has never been attempted before.

Hence I was less interested than I had hoped, but that isn't the fault of the author - and I wasn't totally uninterested, either. Parts of the book, mainly those
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
Diana Sandberg
May 25, 2012 rated it did not like it
I have always been fascinated by history and by language, and a combination of the two ought to have riveted me, but in fact I spent several weeks attempting to slog through this thing and just couldn't do it. Dry as dust.
Elliott Bignell
Apr 10, 2015 rated it it was amazing
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
Sep 06, 2017 rated it it was amazing
In 559 pages, Ostler condenses the history of human civilization, based on a study of languages. It's a miraculous feat, and a powerful refresher on world history, written in a very engaging fashion so that there's never a dull moment. He analyzes how languages spread, how they die, and what factors contribute to a language's longevity.

The most interesting sections, to me, were the final two chapters, where he assesses the status of the current top 20 languages, and then suggests where we might
Chris Fellows
May 01, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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
Karen Chung
Nov 22, 2018 rated it it was amazing
A rich and dense historical account of how a relatively small number languages became the world's dominant languages, with special reference to the interplay of power and language choice.

I was especially impressed with the accuracy and depth of the presentation on Chinese, my own specialty.

This should be required reading in every linguistics program.
Matthijs Krul
Aug 04, 2017 rated it it was amazing
A wonderfully informative infodump of a book. If you like languages, you will love this.
could not resist low amazon price for kindle, but I should have read the large number of negative reviews on amazon before purchase...does not work in this format so I will have to see if I find a copy at library to assess
Adam Balshan
Apr 01, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: linguistics
3 stars [Linguistics]
Linguistics: 3.5 stars.
Politically Subjective Asides (semi-pervasive): 1.5 stars
Theological Straying (a few sentences): 1 star

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
Dec 24, 2012 rated it liked it
A hefty book and a burdensome read, I have to say, not just because it took me forever (and trust me, dear reader, I was game for the task) but because Ostler's writing style is breezy without gaining any lightening grace, leaving his thoughts clearly expressed but, across too many stretches, limp on the page. Could be it's just me that feels this way, in which case take your hat and carry on reading merrily, but I had a lot of trouble despite agreeing with many of Ostler's premises, theses, and ...more
Michael Cayley
Jan 25, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, language
This is a history of languages which have left written works or records - how and why they spread or went into decline, what causes languages to become dominant and so on. A final section looks at factors which may affect the relative importance of different languages in coming decades. The focus is not on linguistic evolution - how vocabulary and grammar of languages have developed - but on the relationship of languages to political, economic, cultural and societal history. As far as I know thi ...more
Sep 09, 2008 rated it liked it
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.
Maddie O.
Feb 11, 2019 marked it as started-and-did-not-finish
I'm DNFing this after about two months of trying to slog through it. I found it boring to the point that I would intentionally read it when I was up late at night because it was guaranteed to put me to sleep in two pages or less. Maybe someone else would find it interesting, but I felt like the author was just throwing disjointed information about each language at me to see what stuck. Nothing much did.
Mar 22, 2007 rated it did not like it
Shelves: 2006
I was looking forward to this book – but it is much too pedantic. All you wanted to know about the rise and fall of great languages, but not told in a very interesting way. Tends toward the academic.
Mario Russo
May 26, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This book delivers what was promised, despite the broad range of the topic "Language history of the world". Very interesting book. Recommended.
Facundo Martin
Oct 18, 2014 rated it it was amazing
[Except for the first and last paragraphs, this is more of a summary than a review :p]

In Empires of the Word, Ostler traces the careers of the major, best-documented languages and how they were shaped by world history, a work he describes as diachronic sociolinguistics. This book addresses questions such as how languages establish themselves in a region and why they die out. Somewhat as a side effect, it affords language enthusiasts an unconventional and highly enjoyable approach to the most re
Nathan Albright
Sep 14, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: challenge-2020
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 lang ...more
Dec 30, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, language
Language as a medium of thought, of literature, of commerce, and conquest. This is a brilliant world history seen through the prism of languages, concentrating on the ones that had the greatest impact, but also examining those that failed to extend their reach and became insignificant or extinct. The grand sweep of history is here, starting with the first civilization, the Sumerians, and moving through time and space to eventually arrive at the present, and making some predictions about which la ...more
Jacob van Berkel
May 24, 2019 rated it it was ok
For some reason I expected this to be a look at history through language. Reconstructing, say, the history and expansion of Sino-Tibetan speaking peoples by looking at the current spread and branches of the language family. Sort of like David Anthony's book The Horse, the Wheel, and Language did for Indo-European, but more broadly focused.

In actuality it was the other way around: a look at languages though history. Basically a 'normal' general history book, but with a focus on languages. Wh
Tso William
Mar 18, 2014 rated it really liked it
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
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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

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“Our language places us in a cultural continuum, linking us to the past, and showing our meanings also to future fellow-speakers.” 4 likes
“A language brings with it a mass of perceptions, clichés, judgements and inspirations.” 2 likes
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