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Empires of the Word Hardcover – 2010


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  • Hardcover
  • ASIN: B003WZD2DW
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 4,975,897 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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From the language point of view, the present population of the world is not six billion, but something over six thousand. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

51 of 51 people found the following review helpful By David Welsh on 29 April 2007
Format: Paperback
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 By Pieter Uys HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWER on 25 Sep 2006
Format: Paperback
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 By Pieter Uys HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWER on 1 Aug 2005
Format: Hardcover
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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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By B. J. O'Brien on 8 July 2013
Format: Paperback
Nicholas Ostler plainly knows a lot about languages. Unfortunately he is not very good at writing a book. To support that judgement here is a selection of authorial shortcomings.

Item 1. The book takes a long time to get going. There is a Preface, then a Prologue, then a Chapter 1, then Chapter 2, and Chapter 2 is still telling us what the book is going to be about - eventually. Four sections of a preludial character before the book actually gets into its stride is a ridiculous way to test the patience of the reader. The author or his editor should have spotted that poor piece of design.

Item 2. The book includes a fair number of textual extracts, such as an exchange of salutations in Maya (transliteration and English translation, p2), a Sumerian lovesong and lullaby (transliteration and English translation, p51-52), a traditional maxim in Sanskrit (actual characters, transliteration and English translation, p174), a poem in Greek (actual characters and English translation, p265) and many others. This feature of the book may have seemed a nice idea early at the early brainstorming stage, but it should not have survived very long. A sensible author would have realised long before publication that these extracts would add nothing whatsoever to a reader's intellectual grasp of the book's subject.

Item 3. There is an account (p297) of the constitution of ancient Rome (consuls and praetors and so on). This extends for almost two pages and I began to wonder how the author would make this information relevant to the topic of the Latin language. He doesn't even try. If he had looked at his text critically he would have seen that the passage could be excised completely with no loss whatsoever.

Item 4. The chapter on Sanskrit begins (p174) `The word Sanskrit ...
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