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Empires of the Word : a Language History of…

Empires of the Word : a Language History of the World (2005)

by Nicholas Ostler

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1,333319,140 (3.97)80
An unusual and authoritative 'natural history of languages' that narrates the ways in which one language has superseded or outlasted another at different times in history. 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 rarely been examined. 'Empires of the Word' is the first to bring together the tales in all their glorious variety: the amazing innovations - in education, culture and diplomacy - devised by speakers in the Middle East; the uncanny resilience of Chinese throughout twenty centuries of invasions; the progress of Sanskrit from north India to Java and Japan; the struggle that gave birth to the languages of modern Europe; and the global spread of English. Besides these epic achievements, language failures are equally fascinating: why did Germany get left behind? Why did Egyptian, which had survived foreign takeovers for three millennia, succumb to Mohammed's Arabic? Why is Dutch unknown in modern Indonesia, given that the Netherlands had ruled the East Indies for as long as the British ruled India? As this book engagingly reveals, the language history of the world shows eloquently the real characters of peoples; it also shows that the language of the future will, like the languages of the past, be full of surprises.… (more)
  1. 30
    In Search of the Indo-Europeans: Language, Archaeology, and Myth by J. P. Mallory (timspalding)
  2. 10
    The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World by David W. Anthony (timspalding)
  3. 02
    The Story of Spanish by Jean-Benoît Nadeau (lorax)
    lorax: "Empires of the Word" is a history of a dozen or so languages shaping history, including Spanish; "The Story of Spanish" is the same idea, less academically and obviously in more detail, focused on Spanish. Both are highly recommended.

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Fascinating look at languages through history which spread because other people wanted or had to learn them such as Chinese, Aramaic, Sanskrit, Greek, and Spanish. After looking at why different languages persisted in being spoken by a large number of people over a wide area, the author tries to predict whether English is here to stay as the current no. 1 international language. ( )
  Robertgreaves | Aug 16, 2019 |
Oh dear--I had such high hopes--and I really do love the occasional academic treatise. This just wasn't compelling, despite in the abstract sounding like a slam dunk for me. Eventually I realised one day I will die, and I'd rather have read something else. It's really, really specific, technical, and historical, and despite all the drama and romance that the subject could have had, it was about as gripping as reading about how General Motors occasionally changed their car designs, and how. No, not even car designs, less interesting, um, let's say how they changed their engine. That sort of thing. I think there's a nice opportunity for somebody to write a 250 pager on the same topic, but with more general appeal. ( )
  ashleytylerjohn | Sep 19, 2018 |
I just couldn't get into the book. It was a tough read, although it's clear the author loves his subject. The first couple of chapters were interesting, and I thought the author's enthusiasm would carry me through. But it wasn't enough and it really read (to me) more like a series of essays or academic papers all rolled up into one book.

The author looks at various languages and traces their history throughout time. He also sometimes puts multiple languages from different areas together in one chapter to discuss them. And while he seems knowledgeable and excited about the topic, it just wasn't something I was interested in. I thought it would be more historical (the "Empires of the World" threw me off there) rather than a linguistic study.

If you are studying languages, anthropology, etc., it might be interesting to read. It also might be worth the pickup for those who are studying the history or languages of particular areas, although it's rather pricey as a text and a poor student would be better suited to borrowing from the library. If you're just a casual reader, definitely thumb through this first before deciding to pick it up. It's more of an academic text than a read for your commute or time at the beach or coffee shop. ( )
  acciolibros | Feb 11, 2018 |
Quite enlightening; full of interesting insights – although now and then something’s a little suspect. Author Nicholas Ostler claims a working knowledge of 26 languages, and shows them off in Empires of the Word. This is a history of the world’s major languages and their evolution over time. Ostler starts with the Semitic languages – Akkadian, Phoenician, Aramaic, Arabic; then continues in roughly the historical order of when the language became important on the world scene: Egyptian, Chinese, Sanskrit, Greek, Celtic, Latin, German, Slavic. In the second half, Ostler goes on to trace the spread of languages once navigation made intercontinental travel practical; Spanish and Portuguese, Dutch, French, Russian and English; and in a conclusion Ostler speculates on the future of these languages.

Among the interesting insights: Sumerian is the first written language, is ideographic (like Chinese), and isn’t related to any other as far as anybody can tell. However, the people who conquered Sumer recognized the value of writing and adapted it to their own language, Akkadian, by taking the sound values of Sumerian ideograms and using them to represent syllables in Akkadian. Other languages of the Middle East – Elamite, Hurrian, Urartian, Hittite – used the same method (Hittite is interesting because while the others are Semitic it belongs to the Indo-European language family, and was originally written ideographically with hieroglyphs but adopted cuneiform). This method seems extremely clumsy, but it was made to work for millennia, and Ostler assigns it importance equivalent to the printing press in world language technology.

The Phoenicians made the next step, the alphabet, probably facilitated by the fact that papyrus was more convenient for business than clay. Phoenician was once in use from the Black Sea to Cornwall, but (with the salient exception of Carthage) the Phoenicians just maintained trading stations and never established colonies; thus their language disappeared with them. Punic, the language of Carthage, lasted longer; St. Augustine mentions there were still Punic speakers in North Africa in the fifth century AD. Ostler notes that a language very closely related to Phoenician, Hebrew, is “back from the dead”; like some other religious languages (Ge’ez, Coptic, Old Church Slavonic) it was confined to religious use for millennia (Jesus almost certainly knew Hebrew but the everyday language of the Middle East in His time was Aramaic; in fact some of the more recent parts of the Old Testament – parts of Daniel, for example – were written in Aramaic, not Hebrew). But Hebrew is once again in use in Israel, after a more than 2000-year hiatus.

Ostler compares Egyptian and Chinese – this is one of the places where he isn’t very successful. He tries to draw an analogy between the country’s languages and their geopolitical situation, with both being repeatedly invaded by outside powers who then adopted Chinese or Egyptian in place of whatever their own language was. This seems to be true for China, but doesn’t work for Egypt; Egyptian had been written in hieroglyphs for more than 1000 years before the country had a foreign invasion – it’s much more defensible than China. It’s true that near the end of its history as an independent state Egypt was invaded by Nubians, Assyrians, Persians and Macedonians – and it was Macedonian Greek that finally replaced the native language, to be replaced in turn by Arabic. Ostler claims Coptic, still the liturgical language of the Egyptian Orthodox Church, is still “Egyptian” and thus the language is still in use, sort of; Coptic has long since dropped hieroglyphs in favor of an alphabet based on Greek (with a couple of extra letters to accommodate sounds not used in Greek). Perhaps; there are other examples of languages where the orthographic system changed – I already mentioned Hittite, and there’s Linear B (and maybe Linear A) for Greek.

Chinese has been stable for a remarkably long time, despite the apparent difficulty in using an ideographic language. Ostler notes a salient advantage that I hadn’t really appreciated; Chinese spoken language variants, such as Wu and Yue (“Shanghainese” and “Cantonese”) are unintelligible to a Mandarin speaker – but everybody can read the characters. Ostler notes that Mandarin will be the most common language in the world for a long time into the future, unless something really disastrous happens.

Among the Phoenician’s accomplishments was teaching the alphabet to Greeks (who, in turn, taught it to Etruscans and thence to Romans and thence to us). Greek illustrates one of Ostler’s recurring themes – the rise and fall of “administrative” languages. Greek settlers colonized “Magna Graecia”, establishing cities in Spain, France, Sicily, Italy, Africa, and the Black Sea littoral. Then Alexander spread Greek to Anatolia, the Levant, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Iran, Afghanistan, and India. After Alexander’s empire collapsed, Greek remained the language of the Eastern Roman Empire (which eventually was all the Roman Empire there was) and hung on there until 1453. In many of these places, Greek remained a language of the elite – the Parthian kings of Iran inscribed their coins in Greek long after they had replaced the Seleucids. And, Ostler (who holds a degree in Classics from Oxford in addition to a PhD in Linguistics from MIT) notes, it remained that way well into the 20th century, when every well-educated person in the West was expected to know Latin and Greek. Actual native speakers of Greek are now confined to Greece proper, Macedonia, and a few small villages in extreme southern Italy that are the last remnants of Magna Graecia.

This segues into another puzzle – why did Latin quickly replace native languages in Gaul, Spain, and even Romania (which was only occupied briefly by Rome)? Ostler has a couple of suggestions – Rome planted a lot of legionary veterans as colonists, and the local Celtic speakers saw Latin as the language of economic success – rather like English today. That, in turn, requires an explanation of why Latin was replaced again by local languages, and Ostler’s explanation for this is the collapse of literacy after the end of the Western Roman Empire. Each community began to adopt its own pronunciation and grammar. Ostler suggests that literate people – who would have been almost entirely churchmen – would read out Latin texts but with local pronunciation. We call the language groups replacing Latin the Romance languages; it turns out that was once an actual name; in 842 Ludwig the German and Charles the Bald signed a treaty known as the Strasburg Oath, written in Latin, Old High German, and “Romance”, and the church councils of Tours (813) and Mainz (847) instructed priests to write out homilies in “Romance” so the common people could understand them (presumably when read aloud; it’s unlikely the “common people” of the time were literate in any language).

Continuing on this theme, Ostler speculates on why the barbarian conquests of the Roman Empire produced so little lasting language effect – except in one case. Germanic speaking peoples – Vandals, Goths, Angles, Jutes, Saxons and Franks (the word “France” derives from a people who spoke German) – overran the empire from the Rhine to North Africa but didn’t make any change in language – except in Iceland, where there was no competition, and England. Ostler speculates the final determinant in the English language was the Black Death in the 14th century. Up until then, the locals probably spoke British (Celtic) or English (Germanic) depending on where they lived, but the nobility spoke Norman French. If the historical pattern had held, one would expect some variant of French to gradually become the national language. Instead, Oestler theorizes, the plague disrupted English social stratification such that it was no longer necessary to know French to hold a prestige – even if not necessarily noble – position. (He makes an interesting – if not necessarily convincing – economic argument here; if the population of a country is cut in half, as England’s was by the Black Death, everybody’s net worth doubles). By 1362 court pleas could be entered in English rather than French (although still recorded in Latin); in 1381 Richard II was able to give a convincing speech in English to the rebels during the Peasant’s Revolt; and in 1399 Henry IV was the first English king to give his coronation address in English. (It might not be easily understood by a modern English speaker – try reading the Canterbury Tales in the original language some time – but it was probably good enough contemporaries).

That brings us to Oestler’s predictions for the future. As already noted, Mandarin will continue to be the most common language well into the future – it’s spoken by twice as many people as the runner-up, English. All the European languages, with the exception of Spanish, will decline – and Spanish will only increase outside of Europe. Oestler seems pessimistic about the future of English, noting that other “prestige” languages – Aramaic, Greek, Latin – have dropped off the charts. He concedes that English is still the language of science, but seems pessimistic here as well, claiming that scientific research will decline as it is no longer supported by the majority. I hope he’s wrong here. One thing he doesn’t discuss at all is machine translation; by 2050 (say) it will probably be possibly for someone literate only in English to have a perfectly mutually intelligible online conversation with someone literate only in Malayan.

One surprise is Arabic doesn’t make Oestler’s list of the top 20 world languages; there are, after all, over a billion Muslims in the world and every one of them is supposed to be able to read, or at least recite, verses from the Quran. I suspect Oestler may be trying to tiptoe around a political correctness minefield here; although good Muslims are supposed to know Arabic a lot of them only have rote-memorized things that they don’t understand.

I was also surprised to find that Malayan – the national language of Indonesia – is actually the native language of only a small fraction of the population (the majority language is Javanese). Malayan was adopted by the Dutch when they colonized Indonesia as a trade and servant language. There’s a similar situation in Pakistan with Urdu; it was originally an “army” language (the word “Urdu” is related to the word “horde”) intended to provide a common language for sepoys serving in the Indian army (Urdu and Hindi are essentially the same language and are mutually intelligible; however Urdu is written with Arabic script and Hindi is written with Devanagari). Swahili is in the same category; although it’s the national language of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, and Tanzania, it’s not the native language of anybody; instead it’s a “trade language” derived from Bantu and Arabic.

Good maps show language development. Extensive quotes, in the original script, transliteration, and translation to English (I note Oestler’s Egyptian orthography and transliterations, while technically correct, do not follow standard “Egyptologese” practice). Extensive bibliography. Enjoyable, instructive and recommended. ( )
3 vote setnahkt | Dec 7, 2017 |
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 Sumerian, Akkadian, Aramaic and Arabic. It then goes on to the rise and fall of sanskrit in India, of latin and Greek in Europe and the spread of Chinese and Egyptian.

Sevond half of the book deals with the spread of the European languages by the sea, starting with Portuguese, spanish, dutch,French and then English.

The final section deals with the current state of the most spoken languages in the world and some speculation regarding their future.

This is a richly detailed work that goes through the rise and fall of more than a dozen of the world's most influential languages while investigating the factors involved in their growth and death.

Filled with a lot of anecdotes in their original languages and some detailed descriptions of the structures of various languages, this is not an easy and fast read but is very fascinating and enjoyable. ( )
1 vote kasyapa | Oct 9, 2017 |
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It’s a history of all languages – some have called it a macro-history. The ambition of this book is really extraordinary. There have been lots of histories of English, and there are lots of histories of other languages in those languages, but actually to try and write a history of the whole of language is an incredibly audacious thing, and Ostler pulls it off.
A marvelous book, learned and instructive.
This is a great book. After reading it you will never think of language in the same way again - and you will probably think of the world, and its future, in a rather different way too.
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