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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 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.


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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 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.

30 review for Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World

  1. 4 out of 5

    Victor Sonkin

    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 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.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Jeff

    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 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 really know, but this is the way that I think makes the story most interesting, and there is some evidence for it, so I'm going to choose to believe it was this way." That's fine, and he's clear about it; and it's not like the book is poorly researched (there's hundreds and hundreds of footnotes). But he does recognize that the needs of a coherent story/worldview require that we take a few things on less evidence than we'd like. Finally, the book is peppered throughout with lots of source-language citations for pretty much every language that he talks about. It opens up with an extensive passage in romanized Quechua, for instance. I thought this was awesome; although I wasn't entirely convinced that his (or his advisors) had written everything precisely right, and trying to get one's head around the numerous different romanization systems (to get a sense of what the languages actually sounded like and how they worked, his stated point in including these quotes) got really difficult. It's an admirable goal, but I don't think that it really worked as intended. All that said, this was a dry book about a totally fascinating subject, and if you're interested enough in the subject, you'll put up with reading the book.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Jee Koh

    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 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-needed perspective. Throughout the book Ostler is at pains to correct the misconception that empire-building has carried the burden of language spread. Some conquerors in fact adopted the language of their vanquished foes. Even when military might led to language spread, what was more vital for the permanent adoption of the foreign language was the growth of the language community, in which a parent, often the mother, taught the children her native language. The hearth and not the battlefield was where language victories were won or lost. Ostler gives four main reasons why an imperial language lives on after the empire disappears. The reasons are self-explanatory: creole (e.g. all the American colonies that became independent from their mother countries in Europe), nostalgia (why French has hung on in sub-Saharan Africa), unity (the take-up of Malay by the newly independent Indonesia), and globality (the many countries that adopt English). In Ostler's terms, Singapore has retained English for reasons of unity and globality. This is a book I will come back to again and again.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Kaśyap

    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 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.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Wanda

    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 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 all the many languages of mankind. It focuses on the top 20 languages, kind of a greatest hits album. There are obviously many fascinating languages that don't appear or get short shrift. If you are academically inclined, there are oodles of footnotes which should provide plenty of future research opportunities. For me, this was probably not a good book to choose as a summer read--it is very academic in tone and is definitely not light as summertime reading usually is. In fact, some evenings it acted as a sleep-aid, and next evening I would have to re-read some pages that my dozy brain just hadn't absorbed the previous day. That said, the book was also an excellent overview of world history and I think I have a better sense of the order of certain events than before. And because I am fascinated with language and linguistics, I'm very glad I persevered and finished the book.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Pete

    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 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 language, part of the Indo-European language group. Sanskrit, Persian (Farsi), and Arabic are all admired for being poetic. The Turkic language group is spoken by a group that extends today in broad, straight path from Turkey to the border or Mongolia. Romance languages include all of the obvious countries, plus (duh!): Romania. Finnish is related to Hungarian, and nothing else. The Greek language continued to thrive for more than 1000 years largely because it was held in esteem by learned Romans. The Germanic languages don't have a good success rate. English seems strong today, but in historic terms, it probably won't last too long on top. So, a painful book, but here I am, reading it again already.

  7. 5 out of 5

    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.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Mike

    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 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 qualities, whereas the Chinese had a more nuanced typography of barbaric attributes. I have a Greek friend who calls me a barbarian. One day he'll stop, but I may have to clout him over the head with something fierce to help him see reason.

  9. 4 out of 5

    kingshearte

    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 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 narrower focus. So while it was quite fascinating, it was not a good book to read when I was even a little sleepy. Definitely best for the more alert reading times. Some specific comments: On page 64, he says: "Writing systems, after all, exist to record what people say, not vice versa. There is no other case in history of a change in writing technology inducing a change in popular speech." He wrote this in 2004. I wonder, if we look at popular speech in a few years, or possibly even now, will we not see certain changes that are a direct result of email, instant messaging, and especially text messaging? I myself have been known to say "OMG" out loud, and that's just one example that I really don't think would have occurred without those writing technologies. So even if we haven't seen any cases in history of writing technology inducing a change in popular speech before now, I think that may change, and soon. This book gave me an interesting perspective on Hitler, of all things (maybe it's because Mel Brooks had me thinking about him earlier this week). From our modern perspective, Hitler's attempt to build himself an empire is horrible, incredibly egotistical, and entirely unacceptable. But when you're nearing the end of a book encompassing several millennia of history involving countless nations roaming the world and building themselves global empires, suddenly, this one guy's similar ambitions don't seem quite so unusual. True, Hitler's genocide was somewhat more efficient, and thus more horrific, than many others, but in terms of empire building, really, he was just a century or so too late for such things to be countenanced at all. But please don't take this paragraph as evidence that I'm some kind of Nazi sympathizer. I think one area he missed out on a bit (and this shouldn't be taken as a criticism so much, because there's only so much one can fit into a book, even one with as small print as this one has) is around the Germanic and Slavic languages. He did discuss how they came from the north, and never really took hold, but he didn't really discuss how they started in the north in the first place. Maybe it's simply a lack of written material extant from that period, meaning that no real analysis is possible, but he specifically stated that about other languages, such as many of the pre-European American and Australian languages, but said nothing like that (that I recall) about the Germanic and Slavic languages. They just kind of showed up in the Roman Empire along with the Goths & co., and then disappeared again. Much as I wouldn't want to suggest he make this book any longer, a little more on that subject (or a mention of why there couldn't be more on that subject) would have been nice. Ultimately, the book was fascinating, massive in scope, highly informative and well-researched, and a hell of a slog. There are very few people I would recommend this book to, because I just don't think that most people I know are that interested in the subject matter. Hell, I'm not sure I'm that interested in the subject matter, and I happily read a whole book about the alphabet.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Diana Sandberg

    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. 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.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Robert

    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 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 overlapping with pre-existing interests of mine, were fascinating, other parts were a bit of a grind. The basic idea of examining how conventional historical processes (e.g. military, colonial, mercantile, migrational, religious, technological) impact the use, spread and decline of languages did seem interesting and original, particularly the generalising conclusions but, oddly, they come before the detailed exposition they are derived from. Strongly recommended to history buffs - not so much to anybody else.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Adam Balshan

    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 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 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.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Aaron Arnold

    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 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 and Sanskrit as lingua francas, or why Dutch didn't catch on as a colonial language. I personally find language history and usage fascinating (nerd alert), so maybe not everyone will find this book as cool as I did, but this was one of those books where I learned something new on basically every page and enjoyed doing it. Ostler's ability to synthesize vast amounts of research is awe-inspiring, and his obvious love for certain languages (he has a real crush on Sanskrit, in particular) carries over to the subject material in ways that only the best authors manage. He has some really interesting insights on all sorts of things, like why Germanic tribes managed to conquer half the Roman Empire but didn't impose their languages anywhere whereas the Arab conquests only a few hundred years later led to permanent linguistic change across almost all of their territories, and his ending discussion of the evolution and future of English is probably worth the price of the book right there.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Elliott Bignell

    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 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 the very bedrock of our powers of expression. We see the flow of conceptual frameworks and the means of expressing and constraining them. There are 6,000-odd languages in the world, grouped into a hierarchy of families, with possibly half in danger of extinction within a generation or two. Apart from the loss of potentially valuable diversity and the lessons about the human mind that will be lost with these languages and their associated conceptual frameworks, this highlights that a handful of languages have expanded or persisted across continents and millennia. These languages have built empires. Ostler's quest is to understand how a language comes to be an empire-builder rather than a linguistic eddy in a tributary. What languages have survived millennia or have spread across continents, and why? The answers seem to have less to do with the unique qualities of the language than you might think, and less to do with military or commercial dominance. Literacy has proved a potent cultural weapon, of course. The very fact of being able to write enables a culture to take on a sense of itself across time and space. A culture which can write can send orders for spices across oceans and orders to march across continents. A culture which can write can remember more than can be taught to a single mind, and can still remember it when the mind dies. A culture that can write becomes both more unified and potentially more organised in many ways. This enables it to overrun others. The potential to overrun others is not the benison to a language that one might think, though. Invaders such as the Germanic tribes have dominated swathes of a continent, such as historic Gaul, and then left hardly a trace of their tongue across much of the area. Cultures can write and thereby teach their neighbours ... to write. An alphabet can leap cultural boundaries and leave a language dying in its wake, taking on a life of its own. An ideographic system can offer nearly insurmountable obstacles to learning and yet, like Chinese, its very abstraction from the phonetic nature of the language can enable it to serve and persist as the medium of transmission for mutually unintelligible dialects. The secret of why English, Latin, Egyptian or Chinese can become an empire, or why it can then fade, is no facile single-factor recipe. The odd piece of entertainment surprises the alert mind now and again. Akkadian and Sumerian, the earliest scripts spoken in Babylon and the fertile Crescent, were Semitic languages written in a script called cuneiform, which was pressed into clay tablets. These tablets were sometimes fired, but for economic reasons large volumes of text, such as records of state, were simply dried and stacked in libraries. When the administrators were overturned and the cities sacked in the fall of this civilisation, these libraries acquired the distinction of being the only ones in history to have been preserved by arson! Ostler deals with English towards the end, and gives reasons, which deserve thought, as to why it may not be a thousand-year empire. While successful now through its prestige in the former British Empire and its strong linkage with science and technology, it is increasingly becoming primarily a second language while first-language speakers gradually become less of a majority in their own countries. English achieved what some other European colonial languages did not in that it became a symbol of achievement in the colonies for educated natives. Elsewhere it simply replaced native languages as the natives were driven to or near to extinction. In the Americas and Australasia the native populations were devastated and English-speakers took over the land. Indeed, the willingness to stay and farm rather than merely seek treasure is partly what distinguishes English as an empire-builder. Elsewhere the climate, less condign, discouraged European farmers with their temperate crops and lack of malaria-resistance. In these places, English tended to become an elite language, and it remains a language of aspiration to this day. It may not always remain so. The status of second language is precarious. This is a wonderful book. Accessible and largely non-technical, it is illustrated by the swirls and curlicues of the languages with which it treats, but does not require of the reader to master the scripts or the grammar. A highly readable and thoroughly entertaining piece of education awaits the reader.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Alesa

    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 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 be headed linguistically as a species. Here are some of the more noteworthy concepts: * "In the political economy of languages, it pays to be the dialect of a city that becomes a national capital; it pays to be in a tropical plain, especially if it grows rice; and above all it pays to be in East or South Asia. But all of these criteria have exceptions: indeed, English started out with none of these advantages. As in business, it is evident that merger and acquisition can outpace organic growth." p. 529 * Mandarin Chinese is the world's dominant language today, with 3 speakers to every 1 of English, but this will change in 2050 when India overtakes China in population, and Pakistan's population continues to skyrocket. * English could be expected to decline, as the rest of the world grows in population and wealth. English traffic on the Internet was recently exceeded by the total in other languages. But English and other European languages are no longer viewed as symbols of colonial domination, and instead are seen as crucial for success in business --which could boost longevity. p. 532 * "It is less important how many there are in a linguistic community than who those people are -- and how well distributed." p. 533 * Migration of peoples dominates to this day as the main vehicle of language spread. p. 534 * In the past 500 years, other factors besides migration have impacted language spread: a) Global navigation; b) Epidemics wiping out native populations; c) Colonization; and d) Technology, including the mass production of language texts. * "The past 400 years have been almost absurdly affirming for the English-speaking peoples, as political, military and cultural victories have succeeded one another... But English can hardly expect that its linguistic vogue will continue forever." p. 541 Its current popularity is based on population, position and prestige. * English has as many speakers as any other language if you include second-language speakers. No language can touch it for global coverage. And it's associated with technical progress and popular culture around the world, based on a perception of wealth. p. 542 This global coverage is unprecedented in world history. * Most of the world's people are still bilingual. So English is more of a lingua franca than anything else. And there is no guarantee that it will stay united as a language. It may re-emerge as many dialects, like those spoken in Jamaica and Singapore. * English has already peaked as a first language. By 2050, Hindi-Urdu, Spanish and Arabic should rival it native speakers. Even English as the world science language may fail to save it, because science appeals to a small minority of speakers. * The equilibrium of languages used in global communication is beginning to shift toward Chinese in investment, and groups like Turkish-speaking peoples (Turks, Uzbeks,Turkmens, Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, who can all understand one another). * "Future changes may have a surprisingly disturbing effect on the English speakers who remain... But no law and no decree anywhere has ever yet stemmed the ebbing of a language tide." p. 548-9 * "World languages are not exclusively the creation of world powers. A language does not grow through the assertion of power, but through the creation of a larger human community." p. 556 * Each language has its own personality: "Arabic's austere grandeur and egalitarianism; Chinese and Egyptian's unshakeable self-regard; Sanskrit's luxuriating classifications and hierarchies; Greek's self-confident innovation leading to self-obsession and pedantry; Latin's civic sense: Spanish rigidity, cupidity and fidelity; French admiration for rationality; andEnglish admiration for business acumen." p.557 * "We should not be too overwhelmed by forecasts of impending unity [of languages]. Half a dozen spiritual revelations have offered themselves as universal truths in the past 2500 years, and most of them are still in contention. Likewise the languages whose histories this book has reviewed have been spreading in increasing circles for twice that period of time. Despite all this rampant competition, almost all of them -- or their successors -- are still in existence at the beginning of the twenty-first century." p. 558

  16. 5 out of 5

    Chris Fellows

    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 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 disappointed with Michael Wood's "The Story of India" because it omitted what to us to the East of India is one the most exciting parts of the Indian story - the expansion of Hindu culture into South East Asia. Nicholas Ostler tell us this story in a way that both tells how it happened and attempts to explain why the culture was so attractive - an account that for me was one of the high points of the book. The maps are great. Everywhere a map is needed, there is a map. Very nice. 'History' is given the traditional meaning of 'Period of time for which written records exist', so a lot of interesting stories are not told. I also would have liked to read more about the languages that have developed in the shadow of the Chinese giant - there is very little on Japanese, less on Korean, and practically nothing about the languages of Indochina. And, I was carried away by his thesis that the rate of language adoption is strongly influenced by the degree of similarity in structure between the learner's language and the new language, but on reflection afterward the evidence for it is pretty slim. The advance of the Arabic language was not really 'lightning fast' to the West - Ostler says that Coptic was the main language in Upper Egypt as late as the 14th century, and Berber was the main mother tongue in the Maghrib even longer - and the urban centres that were Arabised first were the places where non-Afro-Asiatic languages would have been strongest. And Aramaic held out among Christian and other religious minorities that did not have the constant influence of the Qur'an on their vernacular. The idea of Latin rapidly displacing Celtic in Western Europe and Greek rapidly displacing Indo-European languages in Anatolia is hard to confirm given the lack of records in the displaced languages, and there are the counter-examples of the survival of British and the Indo-European languages of Eastern Anatolia (Armenian and Kurdish), suggesting distance from the metropole rather than structural similarity is predominant. Anyhow. Good book. Read it.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Karen Chung

    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. 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.

  18. 4 out of 5

    William

    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.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Matthijs Krul

    A wonderfully informative infodump of a book. If you like languages, you will love this.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Kathy

    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

  21. 4 out of 5

    Elentarri

    Interesting and fascinating account of the spread of languages.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Tim Martin

    This was a sprawling, massive look at the history of just about every major language or language group in the world, their origin, rise, and in many cases eventual fall. Not every language of course, but all the major ones in ancient, medieval, and modern times, an at time dense history (packed with an enormous number of maps) that covers wide swaths of history and geography. It is an impressive feat of popular scholarship bordering really for much of the book on specialist scholarship, with lot This was a sprawling, massive look at the history of just about every major language or language group in the world, their origin, rise, and in many cases eventual fall. Not every language of course, but all the major ones in ancient, medieval, and modern times, an at time dense history (packed with an enormous number of maps) that covers wide swaths of history and geography. It is an impressive feat of popular scholarship bordering really for much of the book on specialist scholarship, with lots of primary source materials in various tongues, both in their original script and translated, used as examples (including a number of Mesopotamian languages using cuneiform as well as Egyptian hieroglyphics, Hebrew, Sanskrit, Chinese, and Japanese among others) and a number of passages talking about the specific linguistic aspects of how certain languages differ in say in terms of vowels, glottal stops, diphthongs, etc. The book really can be read for two things. The majority of the book, I would say roughly maybe the first three-quarters, is a section by section history of the various languages and language groups of the world (those with writing, “direct written evidence,” excluding the various Bantu languages that spread through sub-Saharan African, the various Polynesian, Melanesia, and Micronesian languages in the Pacific, most Native American languages north of Aztec civilization, and the Australian Aboriginal languages, which do get passing mention but not any in depth coverage and most of their coverage are about their decline in the face of European or other settler languages). Though most of the book seems also the history of the rise and fall of various city-states, empires, and civilizations, over time it becomes clear that though various political entities’ fortunes often had an absolutely enormous effect on various language communities, the book is just that, a history of various language communities, which may exist sometimes for a thousand years or more independent of a empire or an country that has long since vanished (Sumerian empire, the Greek city-states, Carthage, the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire) or declined, at least overseas or in some other area not the original country (the colonial Portuguese and Dutch Empires in south and southeast Asia, the French in North America, the English in India) with language community meaning those who speak it as a primary language, a secondary language, or the persistence of a language for specialized purposes such as use by the elites for record keeping, scholarly use, government administration, or the continuing use of a language for religious purposes long after the language ceased to be used daily by native born speakers for non-specialized functions. Some languages and their history I knew a something about from school and previous readings, such as Greek, Latin, French, and English, others I didn’t know much about at all, such as Nahuatl (language of the Aztecs and neighboring peoples), Quechua (the language of the Inca and other neighboring peoples in the Andes at the time of the arrival of the Spanish, a language which “there was no accepted term for it when the Spanish arrived”), and Sanskrit (vehicle of so much Indian culture and religion into the rest of Asia, “the first example in history of a language traveling over a maritime network, through the establishment of trade and cultural links with peoples on the other side,” also notable that its spread into South-East Asia and modern day Malaysia and Indonesia was not spread as the result of military expansion, quite unlike a number of other languages). Some sections seemed a bit more thorough to me than others, with for instance really good coverage of the various languages of Mesopotamia (particularly Sumerian, Akkadian, and Aramaic), as well as Greek, Latin, Chinese, and Sanskrit, with not maybe quite as much coverage of say Japanese, Nahuatl, or Quechua (though again often with some really excellent maps, even in these sections). The other topic, mainly covered towards the end and after the reader has absorbed example after example of the spread, decline, and in some cases extinction of once major languages, are what factors can encourage a language’s spread (both among native speakers and a sometimes very large community speaking it as a second language or at least possessing a great deal of familiarity with it) and what can cause its decline, with the author then applying these principles to explain the modern preeminence of English, what factors contribute to a possible continuing dominance, and what factors could explain how it might in the future decline or even no longer be a dominant language (and while still a world language at the same time have a rising number of native Spanish speakers in the largest and most powerful country speaking English). I really liked the “big picture” aspect of viewing world history through the rise and fall of various languages prevalent in the final section of the book and it was easily my favorite aspect of the book. I thought it was skillful to make a point about why a language persisted or declined and then refer to (with page numbers and chapter names) examples already referred to in the text that illustrate a particular point. A number of points were made that I found interesting, such as say the degree of linguistic similarity of a new lingua franca to existing languages (not a comment on whether or not a particular language is inherently learnable or not, but a statement that languages “are more easily learnt by a new population, and hence spread more easily, when they are structurally similar to the old language of that population,” using such examples as Greek persisting in Anatolia because of similarities to indigenous and closely related Phrygian, Lydian, and other Anatolian languages, but not persisting ultimately in Syria, Palestine, and Mesopotamia because it was structural dissimilar and not as closely related to Aramaic). I really liked the by the time I got to it the assertion that English in a major world language in part through its usefulness in trade and as a prestige aspect, that knowing it is a gateway to success and that products of English, such as today a great deal of pop culture, are major reasons for a widespread community of English speakers either long after an English speaking country stopped dominating a foreign country or in many cases never was dominant, that this was also a double edged sword, that as the thin presence on the ground of say Dutch even after centuries of dominance in the East Indies showed, eventually leaving very little cultural footprint, that once English ceases being so important for international trade or as a gateway to success, a “language associated with business is soon abandoned when the basis of trade, or the sources of wealth, move on; businessmen are notoriously unsentimental.” I also knew that English succeeds so brilliantly because of its close association with so many important technological aspects in today’s world (such as in many sciences, industries, in aviation, just to name a few), that the technological aspect of language, including the language itself, can also explain why in the past certain other languages were so predominant (for instance Akkadian spread well beyond its original users due to being a written language, that with “the exception of Egypt, and its trading partners in Phoencia, every one of the powers had become literate in the course of the previous millennium through absorbing the cuneiform culture of Sumer and Akkad”). Sometimes the sections on the history of various language groups could be a bit dry or mind-numbing (I think a good bit of this is personal preference rather than a reflection on the topics or the author) and I found sometimes the occasional discussions of the particular linguistic differences of various languages hard to absorb or understand or didn’t always enjoy the quoted sections of primary source material (though it was neat to see cuneiform script and Egyptian hieroglyphics). Some paragraphs could be fairly dense with lots of proper nouns of various city-states, emperors, kings, and so forth (though I will say most sections were pretty good and some such as the sections on Greek, Russian, and Sanskrit were riveting reading), I found the final section on what explains how languages spread (or don’t spread) and the future of English really enlightening reading that I enjoyed and easily my favorite part of the book. I liked how the author gave some sense of the overall “particular approach” of the various language communities, that each “has its own colour and flavour…Arabic’s austere grandeur and egalitarianism; Chinese and Egyptian’s unshakeable self-regard; Sanskrit’s luxuriating classifications and hierarchies; Greek’s self-confident innovation leading to self-obsession and pedantry; Latin’s civic sense; Spanish rigidity, cupidity and fidelity; French admiration for rationality; and English admiration for business acumen.” In each section on a major language or language group, a good bit of the cultural flair and feel of say Ancient Greek really came out. It’s a lengthy book, 559 pages of text before the endnotes (there are also footnotes), an extensive bibliography, and a thorough index. It wasn’t particularly light reading but I am glad I read it.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Ashley Lambert-Maberly

    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, n 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.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Leif

    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 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 theoretical underpinnings. Nevertheless, the subject is vast, and so too must any writer's ambition be to tackle it. Open the book to find a history of language on display.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Michael Cayley

    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 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 this approach to language history is original, and for me the book was an eye-opener. Thoroughly recommended.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Barb

    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.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Maddie O.

    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. 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.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Tiger Lily

    I've tried to read this book so many times but I always give up after the first few pages. The writing style is just so boring and it doesn't flow at all. It's a shame because it really looks like it contains a lot of valuable information and the subject deeply interests me. I just can't get through more than 2-3 pages without almost falling asleep... I've tried to read this book so many times but I always give up after the first few pages. The writing style is just so boring and it doesn't flow at all. It's a shame because it really looks like it contains a lot of valuable information and the subject deeply interests me. I just can't get through more than 2-3 pages without almost falling asleep...

  29. 5 out of 5

    Andrew-Mario Hart-Grana

    Not what was expecting. Some sections were pretty good. It just does not flow as it should.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Mario Russo

    This book delivers what was promised, despite the broad range of the topic "Language history of the world". Very interesting book. Recommended. This book delivers what was promised, despite the broad range of the topic "Language history of the world". Very interesting book. Recommended.

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