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Empires of the Word : A Language History of…

Empires of the Word : A Language History of the World (original 2005; edition 2005)

by Nicholas Ostler

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1,182266,806 (3.97)76
Title:Empires of the Word : A Language History of the World
Authors:Nicholas Ostler
Info:New York : HarperCollins Publishers, c2005.
Collections:Your library
Tags:History, Linguistics, Language

Work details

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

  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-Benoit 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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» See also 76 mentions

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This fascinating book looks at the history of those languages which have become dominant for a while in areas far from their origins - Sumerian, Akkadian, Phoenician, Aramaic, Arabic, Egyptian, Chinese, Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, Nahuatl, Quechua, Portuguese, Dutch, French, Russian, and English (plus a few others of course) - and asks how this process happens, and also how such languages get displaced by their successors.

He starts with the Middle East, and I probably learned more from this section than from any other. I would have found it difficult to distinguish between the Akkadians, the Assyrians and the Babylonians; now I appreciate the lovely continuity between Akkadian, Aramaic and Arabic, all fairly closely related and the lingua franca of Mesopotamia and far beyond for centuries. The Greek chapter also pulls apart the roles of the different Greek dialects in both literature and politics; again, information that I had been vaguely aware of but packaged here comprehensibly. And it had not occurred to me that Ancient Egyptian survived as Coptic until a few centuries ago.

I particularly appreciated was the account of the linguistic shifts of the Chinese languages. I've found it very difficult to get to grips with Chinese history in the past - the names mean nothing to me and I don't have a good sense of the geography; and I've sensed some writers steering away from the question of internal cultural or ethnic differences in China. Of course, if you approach it through the lens of language, it is impossible to ignore the cultural and ethnic aspects, and equipped with those tools I suddenly found a lot of what I had previous read fitting together much better in my mind. And it's important for understanding how our world will work in the future - Mandarin has about the same number of speakers as the second, third and fourth languages in the world combined (Spanish, English and Hindi/Urdu), and the other Chinese languages are level pegging with major European languages like French and Italian.

The linguistic approach also offers a somewhat different perspective on imperialism and colonisation. It's actually rather rare in historical terms for a language to jump tracks and become a widely spoken mother tongue in places far from its origin. Most of the ancient languages discussed were languages of commerce, religion and/or administration which took a very long time to percolate into the population as a whole; apart from settler colonies, the same is true in more modern times - Dutch is not spoken in Indonesia (and barely in the Caribbean); English may be the national language of India but it is spoken by only 10% of the population. It is relatively unusual for the colonisers' language to completely displace the previous incumbents. English has been lucky twice: when Germanic tribes conquered the Western Roman Empire, Britain was the only province where their language stuck, everywhere else either retaining Latin (or Basque, which had been around for even longer) or switching from Aramaic to Arabic when the time came. Surviving a narrow brush with Norman French, it then became the core language of European settlement in North America. In both cases, depopulation of the indigenous population by plague, helped by ethnic cleansing, appears to have been a crucial factor, as with Spanish in Latin America. (Simple conquest is not enough; cf German and Japanese.) Similarly, Portuguese has Brazil, but none of the other ex-colonies is really lusophone in the same way; as for French, there is no country apart from France where it has a majority of native speakers - not Belgium (38%), not even Monaco (45%).

But Ostler is very far from being an anglophone triumphalist, and takes his last chapter to look ahead at the eventual fall of English as a world language, and to speculate about what might replace it. One would have to bet on Chinese, already an official language or an unofficial language of commerce all round the South China Sea. He makes the point that Chinese, English and Malay/Indonesian have all been helped in their success by rather simple internal structures which make them relatively easier to learn to speak. Chinese, however, is hampered by its writing system which is much more difficult to grasp. I must say I can see English clinging on for centuries to come, as a lingua franca for humanity, even with a relatively decreasing share of native speakers.

Anyway, very much worth reading, full of detail and connections which I had not thought of before. ( )
  nwhyte | Feb 4, 2017 |
Filled with details and trivia. Very interesting. ( )
  Colby_Glass | Jul 2, 2015 |
If you, like me, are interested in linguistics and big-picture world history, this is the book. Looking at the history of world powers not in terms of political boundaries but of groups defined by common languages reveals a lot about where power truly lay and how different peoples identified themselves and influenced each other. ( )
  krista.rutherford | Dec 26, 2014 |
I think this a superior production, and Mr. Ostler seems to know his business. There are even some hints about how a tongue can connive towards its own longevity. ( )
  DinadansFriend | Aug 15, 2014 |
Seemingly exhaustive survey of the history of languages around the world. Written mostly for the expert. I, being only mildly interested in the topic, soon got bogged down. A more popular version of this book (without all the niggly detail) could have been written in 300 pages rather than 560! The parts I did understand, I enjoyed and will admit to skimming a lot of the rest, thankful that there was not a test at the end! ( )
1 vote lothiriel2003 | Jun 15, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 26 (next | show all)
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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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0060935723, Paperback)

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 struggles that gave birth to the languages of modern Europe, these epic achievements and more are brilliantly explored, as are the fascinating failures of once "universal" languages. A splendid, authoritative, and remarkable work, it demonstrates how the language history of the world eloquently reveals the real character of our planet's diverse peoples and prepares us for a linguistic future full of surprises.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:05:14 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

"The story of the world in the last five thousand years is above all the story of its languages. Yet the history of the world's great languages has been very little told. Empires of the Word, by the wide-ranging linguist Nicholas Ostler, is the first to bring together the tales in all their glorious variety: the amazing innovations in education, culture, and diplomacy devised by speakers of Sumerian and its successors in the Middle East, right up to the Arabic of the present day; the uncanny resilience of Chinese through twenty centuries of invasions; the charmed progress of Sanskrit from north India to Java and Japan; the engaging self-regard of Greek; the struggles that gave birth to the languages of modern Europe; and the global spread of English."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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