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Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World [Paperback]

Nicholas Ostler
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
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Book Description

18 Sep 2006

An unusual and authoritative 'natural history of languages' that narrates the ways in which one language has superseded or outlasted another at different times in history.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.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 688 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial (18 Sep 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0007118716
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007118717
  • Product Dimensions: 23.4 x 15.2 x 5.1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 167,830 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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‘It is a compelling read, one of the most interesting books I have read in a long while…a great book. After reading it you will never think of language in the same way again.’ Guardian

‘Learned and entertaining…remarkably comprehensive as well as thought-provoking.’ Observer

‘Ostler is particularly good on this linguistic fragility…This richly various book offers new insights and information for almost everyone interested in the past.’ Sunday Telegraph

‘A serious work of scholarship, but one that can be read from cover to cover by the amateur enthusiast…the breadth of this analysis is breathtaking … it does its job admirably.’ Spectator

‘Ambitious and well-researched.’ New Statesman

From the Author

When did you first become interested in languages?
‘The first time I can remember being really interested in languages was reading war comics, when I was a little boy. A German would be involved in some nefarious deed and would say, ‘Achtung, Engländer, Engländer’ and then they would continue their remarks in English, which I always found rather disappointing. I really wanted to know how they would have gone on in German. So I pestered my mother to get me something on German. And she did and I got Teach Yourself German and this was to some extent against the better judgement, as it appeared, of my school at the time who thought that doing Latin and French with Greek coming on would be quite enough for a young lad. I didn’t agree and neither did my mother fortunately. As it turned out, she then found me a German teacher who was a Russian emigrant lady, so after we’d had a few weeks on German she said, ‘Why don’t you do some Russian as well?’ I thought that’s great.
This was all when I was, I suppose, eleven or twelve, and although I’ve always enjoyed the variety of languages I did have a bit of a problem in those days. Back then, languages were definitely viewed as being on the humanities side of things. That meant you were supposed to be very keen on creative literature, which went naturally with English, and by and large I wasn’t. So there was a slight conflict there. I really loved the nuts and bolts of the languages but at the time I wasn’t that concerned about their literatures. It’s something I still find now, not so much from a grammatical point of view, but more from the body of culture that goes along with a language. It often makes it quite difficult to distinguish what I am trying to do from simply talking about the literary history of a language – which is quite a different thing – but I think it an important difference and one that I do try to maintain.’
Empires of the Word, it seems to me, consistently gives what you call the ‘self-indulgently tough-minded’ historical account of global language development a good drubbing. Were you, at least in part, motivated to write the book to refute a view that many still pay lip service to?
‘Well, no, the real motivation for writing the book was almost like the Thousand and One Nights. I realized after I’d given a lecture on the history of languages and how it might be a precursor for their future, that there were all these stories there that, by and large, linguists knew and sometimes put at the beginning of their grammars, but which were not known to the vast educated public. I thought there was scope for telling them those stories.
Having said that, I have been working as a linguist in various ways all my life and there had been a certain degree of frustration which had built up from being within the community of the number one multinational lingua franca of our day, namely English. Certain things do grate. Like this whole idea that ‘everybody speaks English, don’t they?’ And also that languages and what comes along with them are, essentially, dispensable because languages are just about communication. That is the fundamental view within the English-speaking world, and it’s one that tends to build up in large dominant language communities. You could say a similar thing happened in the Roman Empire and during the years of the Roman Catholic Church’s dominance after the fall of the Empire. So a wish to refute that unexamined dogma was certainly in the back of my mind and does come out in the book. There is plenty of evidence that you miss a lot if you accept that kind of dogma.’
Towards the end of the book, you describe the distinctive traits of different languages; you write about Arabic’s austere grandeur and egalitarianism, Latin’s civic sense etc., etc. An admiration for Sanskrit is palpable, but did you ever feel the urge to make value judgements about one language over another?
‘I don’t think I ever made any judgement about one language being nicer than any other or anything. I certainly felt it was rather jolly to have a second chance to go back to India. I got to do a nice long chapter on Sanskrit and then … here we are again with English in India as well! I was conscious that I liked that. But it’s dangerous when one starts saying that some languages are better or more beautiful than others. This is obviously a risk once you start taking seriously the idea that languages have some sort of character with a human meaning.
Actually, over the last few months I have just been trying to teach myself Persian. I’ve made some progress with it and now I am reading the Shahnameh in Persian. It’s notable that the sort the language it is, with all the ‘chs’ and ‘shs’ sounds, is exactly the kind of language that J. R. R. Tolkien based his ‘black speech’ on in Lord of the Rings. This, of course, is supposed to be an evil language to go with the orcs who speak it. And this is really just a failure of human imagination and understanding by Tolkien. But it is interesting that he should have had that feeling – perhaps what he was really doing was identifying with all the medieval people he spent his life studying, who naturally saw Saracen as the embodiment of evil. Who knows, that may be a message deep in the Lord of the Rings, which I’ll admit I enjoyed very much as a young teenager, but, as you can see, there are difficulties there.
The thing is, you really have to have sympathy for everything without condemning the things you find harder to identify with. And I am much more at ease with some of the languages than others.’
Wittgenstein once referred to a language as a form of life, noting that if a lion could talk we would not be able to understand it. But as our world becomes increasingly globalized and homogenized, I wondered if you felt that our forms of life and the kinds of human experience available to us and consequently our languages will be gradually reduced in some way?
‘I don’t think we are in danger of having a reduced experience in general but certain traditional ways of seeing the world are in danger of being lost. Others will come along and, given enough time, others will rebuild. It may be that in the short and middle term we are in danger of losing stuff. This is something that comes up in the business of language revitalization with endangered languages. Sometimes you are down to a few very old people – and usually if you succeed in reviving a language in that context, it’s very difficult to bring back the specific sentence structure if the language that has taken over does not share the same sentence structure. There are numerous examples of this in central Africa. People go back to speaking a language but they are using the grammar of the interloper language they are trying to give up, just putting the words in.
Some linguists have remarked that in the case of modern Hebrew, it is really re-lexified Russian, because the way Hebrew is spoken now is different structurally from the way you see it in the Bible. It’s very difficult to pin down what is really being lost there. One sees it when one tries to get in contact with ancient cultures; the one we most naturally try in Europe is classical Latin. You find that even if you know all the words and grasp the structure, it is often very difficult to read it easily in the way that you can read either medieval Latin or modern French.
Now some would say, ‘Oh, it’s because classical Latin is very intricate and specially structured to be beautifully formulated,’ and so on and that Romans themselves found it hard to read. But we face the same problem even with the Roman comedies, which were intended for rapid reading. So something has changed and we no longer readily have access to it.’

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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
51 of 51 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent and Readable 29 April 2007
This is an excellent book for people with a reasonably serious interest in languages and/or history. It's a fairly hefty tome, but I felt that the author struck just the right balance between weighty analysis and detailed information on the one hand, and readability and flow on the other. The author's passion for language and interest in how languages evolve and develop is evident - and infectious.

I would say Empires of the Word's main strength is the fact that it focuses is on how languages change and interact with each other over the centuries. I haven't come across any other book that attempts to do this in anything like as comprehensive a way as Nicholas Ostler has here. The broad historical perspective he takes allows him to draw fascinating parallels between the ways very different languages in very different parts of the world have evolved and influenced each other.

Whilst the different sections do reference each other, it's quite possible to just read the part dealing with a particular language that you're interested in. So if you want to find out about how Spanish spread throughout South America, or how and why the Egyptians stopped speaking Egyptian and started speaking Arabic, or get a potted history of how Sanskrit has influenced Asian culture, you can just open the book at the relevant chapter and start reading. (And if the kind of topics I've just mentioned don't make you think "Ooh, that sounds interesting!" then this maybe isn't the book for you...)
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109 of 111 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars History speaks 25 Sep 2006
This impressive work is a study of language dynamics over five millennia. Ostler deals with the birth, rise and decline of those languages that spread most widely through history, and the factors that played a part, like trade, conquest and culture. Of course the book is also by definition a history of civilization. The narrative begins in Sumeria and ends with English as the most important international language of today. The author rightly observes that the study of language history and historical linguistics will be mutually rewarding. He also attempts to indirectly capture the inward history of languages & the subtle mindsets that characterize individual ones, especially as regards the abandonment of mother tongues for new languages.

Part Two: Languages by Land, looks at the Middle & Far East: Sumerian, Akkadian, Phoenician, Aramaic, Arabic, Turkish & Persian, Egyptian & Chinese whilst chapters 5 & 6 considers Sanskrit & Greek respectively. The last two chapters deal with Celtic, Latin, German & Slavic. Part Three: Languages by Sea, explores the spread of Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French, and the remarkable career of English. Part Four deals with the current Top 20 languages and reflects on the meaning and implications of the global survey.

The life-spans of languages differ greatly; if one compares Latin with Greek, for instance, Greek continued to thrive under Roman hegemony alongside Latin and eventually supplanted Latin again in the Byzantine Empire.
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63 of 65 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars History speaks! 1 Aug 2005
This impressive work is a study of language dynamics over 5 millennia. The author deals with the birth, rise and decline of languages through history, and the factors that played a part, like trade, conquest and culture. The narrative begins in Sumeria and ends with English as the most important international language of today. The style is engaging throughout.
Of course the book is also by definition a history of civilisation, focusing on prominent languages like Egyptian, Akkadian, Sanskrit, Chinese, Greek, Latin and the larger European languages. The life-spans of languages differ greatly, if one compares Latin with Greek, for instance, since Greek continued to thrive under Roman hegemony alongside Latin. It eventually supplanted Latin again in the Byzantine Empire.
Some significant civilisational languages like Latin and Sanskrit have all but died as spoken tongues, but they gave birth to rich families of related languages, whilst Old Chinese's pictographic script still serves its daughter languages very well.
A major change occurred around the 16th century when the European voyages of discovery spread the languages of Europe far and wide to the Americas, Africa and Asia. Launched by trade, these languages became tongues of empire through conquest. In that way Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and English spread around the globe.
Dutch gave rise to the vibrant Afrikaans in Southern Africa and lingers on in some form or other in Suriname and on some tiny Caribbean islands. French is in decline, having lost much prestige and many speakers the last few decades.
Ostler differentiates between languages that grew organically (like Chinese) and the aforementioned ones that grew by "merger and acquisition".
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Audacious scope, masterly execution 17 July 2007
The subject of the rise and fall of the great world languages embraces by necessity nearly every area of human endeavour, not least political, economic, cultural and social history as well as linguistics. Although such vast scope naturally limits the range and depth of discussion the author handles this by concentrating on several major cases studies of languages which spread successfully or notably failed to do so. Each of these studies is handled with admirable insight and even-handedness. Such balance is particularly appreciated in an area so closely associated with national identity and pride - even the two current global leaders (English and Mandarin Chinese) are examined with a careful eye to the possible causes of their eventual decline and reminders of how even seemingly unstoppable languages before them are now fallen from use (Akkadian, anyone?).

Given the immensity of its subject, such an overview has of course to gloss over much of the detail. It is impressive that you hardly notice this; there are many detailed and useful maps, a delightful selection of literary quotations (given in original language and English translation) and, unusually for such "big idea" books, an aversion to unqualified generalisations. Moreover, in the few subjects discussed where I would consider myself to be more knowledgeable than the average educated layman I found nothing that I could disagree with or that indicated shoddy research. It would be interesting to know if linguists had a similar experience. In summary, a mind-opening book that makes one ashamed to be a monoglot!
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
a real history evolution world language
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3.0 out of 5 stars Read with caution
Judging from the first search results for 'Lithuanian' in the book, it looked like the texts on Lithuania were all screwed up, but that was mostly due to the search engine. Read more
Published 8 months ago by Arthur
1.0 out of 5 stars Badly Written on Several Levels
Nicholas Ostler plainly knows a lot about languages. Unfortunately he is not very good at writing a book. Read more
Published 14 months ago by B. J. O'Brien
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Excellent book, written in an intelligent but non-academic way that makes reading it instructive, memorable and a joy. Highly recommend.
Published on 15 Nov 2011 by Iain White
1.0 out of 5 stars Not empires of the word
I was looking for a book about the history of languages which I thought I'd found in this book. Instead it's a book about history and how history influenced languages. Read more
Published on 22 Jun 2011 by justabook
5.0 out of 5 stars Dont fight over languages - read this book
Fantastic book. The one thing that obviously distinguishes man from animal is language, so how did we humans come about it and why did some of them catch on more than others? Read more
Published on 23 July 2010 by Sontee
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