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The Last Lingua Franca: The Rise and Fall of World Languages Paperback – 3 Nov 2011


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Product details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin (3 Nov 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1846142164
  • ISBN-13: 978-1846142161
  • Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 2 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 163,723 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Review

Frequently jaw-dropping and never less than convincing (Henry Hitchings Financial Times )

A linguist of astonishing voracity ... the predictions are striking (Economist )

Extensive and engaging...A sweepingly learned and garrulous guide to historical curiosities (James McConnachie Sunday Times )

A wide-ranging linguistic perspective. (Robert McCrum The Observer )

As Nicholas Ostler exhaustively documents...history shows that no language will dominate the world conversation forever...More provocatively, Ostler argues that, once the dominance of English has waned, no lingua franca will replace it. (Jonathon Keats New Scientist )

A thorough analysis of the rise and fall of different lingua francas, Ostler provides us with a series of rich examples showing how these 'common languages' achieve prominence and how they subsequently, and inevitably, lose this, left to shrivel for use only as mother tongues. (Colin Fraser Scotsman )

About the Author

Nicholas Ostler is the author of Empires of the World: A Language History of the World and Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin. He studied Greek, Latin and Philosophy at the University of Oxford and holds a Ph.D. in Linguistics from MIT. With a working knowledge of twenty-six languages, Nicholas now runs an institute for the protection of endangered languages.

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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By gavin o se on 3 Jan 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
The Last Lingua Franca from Nicholas Ostler is a tremendous book, packed full to the brim of interesting facts and what to me seemed like obscure details worth knowing.

Never knew that Persian had been such an important language in the middle (and a bit further) east, good on you to the Malays for not embracing English too tightly when the time came to decide.

On the other hand, the book is so packed of facts, that the type used seems rather small, dense, and the sentence/paragraph structure can sometimes lead you to having to reread a section several times to actually fit the details into your noggin!

Overall well worth a read, but it won't be read in a day.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful By E. L. Wisty TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on 5 Nov 2011
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
"The decline of English, when it begins, will not seem of great moment". Thus with huge understatement, Nicholas Ostler begins his tour of lingua-francas culminating with his forecast for the future of English in that role.

Beginning with an overview of the current status of English around the world, Ostler then turns to the past. There is a lengthy case study of Persian, over two chapters successively considering the earlier use of the language followed by its rise as a lingua-franca amongst the predominantly Turkic speaking Islamic realms stretching from Anatolia through Central Asia to India.

Mechanisms for the spread of lingua-francas are surveyed, firstly by means of trade and then as a vehicle of religion - Pali amongst Buddhism, Latin in Western Europe, and Aramaic in the Middle East. Pathways of subsequent decline are analysed, characterised as "ruin" - economic decline, "relegation" - conscious political acts (such as the attack on Persian by the English in India, the Russians in Central Asia and nationalist Turks post WW1), and "resignation" - social changes (for example the decline of Latin, and later French and German as European lingua-francas).

In turning back to the future, Ostler casts his eye over the other major lingua-francas around the world today, and concludes that no one of them poses any threat to displace English. So what lies ahead? Will English consolidate and deepen its position as a genuine Worldspeak? Will it continue more or less as now, or perhaps even fragment into dialects? Or will it "resign" - retreat once again back to primarily a mother tongue losing its lingua-franca role?

Here Ostler sees a new hitherto unknown mechanism coming into play - technology and the internet.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By E. L. Wisty TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on 5 Nov 2011
Format: Hardcover
(Readers may wish to note that the paperback edition is under a separate listing here.)

"The decline of English, when it begins, will not seem of great moment". Thus with huge understatement, Nicholas Ostler begins his tour of lingua-francas culminating with his forecast for the future of English in that role.

Beginning with an overview of the current status of English around the world, Ostler then turns to the past. There is a lengthy case study of Persian, over two chapters successively considering the earlier use of the language followed by its rise as a lingua-franca amongst the predominantly Turkic speaking Islamic realms stretching from Anatolia through Central Asia to India.

Mechanisms for the spread of lingua-francas are surveyed, firstly by means of trade and then as a vehicle of religion - Pali amongst Buddhism, Latin in Western Europe, and Aramaic in the Middle East. Pathways of subsequent decline are analysed, characterised as "ruin" - economic decline, "relegation" - conscious political acts (such as the attack on Persian by the English in India, the Russians in Central Asia and nationalist Turks post WW1), and "resignation" - social changes (for example the decline of Latin, and later French and German as European lingua-francas).

In turning back to the future, Ostler casts his eye over the other major lingua-francas around the world today, and concludes that no one of them poses any threat to displace English. So what lies ahead? Will English consolidate and deepen its position as a genuine Worldspeak? Will it continue more or less as now, or perhaps even fragment into dialects?
Read more ›
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1 of 13 people found the following review helpful By easytiger on 28 Mar 2013
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I sincerely hope that this book is printed on recycled paper as it would be a shame to waste fresh trees on it. Totally uninteresting. Only thing admirable about it is how the author manages to make such a fascinating subject tedious.
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Amazon.com: 10 reviews
18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
The Past, Present & Future of the English Language 25 Jan 2011
By S. Pactor - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
You might consider Ostler a popularizer of the field of Socio-Linguistics. His new book, published in the US on November 23rd, is an extended essay on the role of English as a Lingua Franca in the modern World. Having recently read the author's earlier book Empires of the Word, I recognized both the theme and some of the details from the earlier book, which covers much of the same territory as the Last Lingua Franca, but in a more general manner.

Specifically, in The Last Lingua Franca looks to historical examples of other Lingua Francas, and how they failed, and asks questions about whether or not English, the current Lingua Franca, might suffer the same fate. I very much place this book along the same continuum where you find pop intellectuals like Malcolm Gladwell or, shudder, Jared Diamond. This group of writers familarizes itself with specific social science disciplines, distills the knowledge into modern magazine quality prose, and attempts to generate a hook that will interest readers who normally wouldn't give an eff about the field of "socio-linguistics."

As such, I would be inclined to think that Ostler has the right angle, since the "decline" of English is a subject that obsesses both liberal members of the education establishment and political right wingers who sponsor "English Only" bills in the legislatures of the southern states.

Most of Ostler's focus in this book is extended examples of different Lingua Francas, how they functioned, and how they collapsed. The reader is treated to chapters on the role of Latin, Persian & Sanskrit in their respective societies, followed by his take on the rise of English, and what "the future holds" for English or any other would-be Lingua Franca. Ostler's ultimate conclusion is spelled out in the title of the book itself, "The LAST Lingua Franca." Ostler takes the position that the rise of Machine Translation and non-English speaking countries like Brazil, Russia, China & India make English's survival as a the language of the world far from secure. However he also acknowledges that it is difficult to imagine ANY language replacing English.

Lingua Franca is a worth while read for a reader with a passing interest in linguistics and a college education, but it's hardly intellectual heavy lifting.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
Too long for too little payoff 15 Mar 2013
By Tom Braun - Published on Amazon.com
Oh man, this book was a slog.

I wanted to like it. I was very excited initially: at last a book about English's future as a world-wide 'lingua franca'. Will it continue to grow and flourish? Will it be replaced by some other language? Or will new technologies render the very need for a lingua franca obsolete? These are all questions Nicholas Ostler, author of the very good book 'Empires of the Word', promises to tackle.

And tackle them he does.... eventually. But in between the opening and closing sections, most relevant to his thesis, he has sandwiched a tediously detailed recounting of the rise and fall of almost every 'lingua franca' in recorded history.

I like history, but I am clearly a rote amateur next to Ostler. He seems to know the history of ancient central Asia like the back of his hand and assumes that the reader will too. Some of it was interesting simply because it was new to me (I knew very little about the Sogdians and their important role in trade before the rise of Islam) but a great deal of it was very dry. And Ostler's assumption seemed to be that the reader is almost as familiar with the subject matter as he is, which means that I was also frequently lost.

All these detours are ostensibly in the name of compiling evidence about lingua francas, but the material could have been much more briefly summarized to make the same basic points. It's clear that Ostler is simply fascinated by the interactions of ancient Turkic and Persian. And that he's used this book as an excuse to go on about them ad nauseum.

If those are his interests than power to him, but his enthusiasm was not effectively communicated to this reader. What should be a book that is accessible to laymen feels a lot more like a thesis paper written for academic peers, and a very specialized group of academic peers at that.

And after all that digging through the long dry middle of the book to get to what the book was ostensibly about, I didn't find his conclusions particularly compelling. Ostler suggests that the rise of nationalism will eventually relegate English from its lingua franca status to a mother tongue spoken mostly by native speakers. This will be largely due to the fact that Machine Translation (MT), technology along the lines of Google Translate, will make the need to use English to be heard by a global audience irrelevant.

Ostler may be incredibly well-grounded in linguistics and history, but his grip on the state of technology is not as impressive. While machine translation has come a long way, it has very definitely plateaued in recent years. There are numerous, very complex problems still to be solved. Personally, I find the evidence that we are a century away from the digital version of Douglas Adams' "babelfish" to be pretty thin. Ostler acknowledges some of the problems, but then simply dismisses them. No real counter-argument, just a "meh."

He also glosses over the so-called 'founder effect': virtually all the software and technology that global communications relies on was originated in English-speaking countries and written in English. This strikes me as a fairly strong argument for the continued importance of English for the foreseeable future. Ostler seems to think that as soon as non-English-speaking countries start developing their own software English's 'first mover' advantage will vanish, but as a programmer I don't think that's true.

For any country to do this they will have to duplicate decades of software development, all coded and documented in English. Familiarity with English will be a required skill for programmers for decades to come, if not longer. Unless Machine Translation really does advance by leaps and bounds in the near future, it's hard to imagine that the language of the vast corpus of American-developed software will suddenly become obsolete. Or that the ultimate information database, the World Wide Web, until recently almost exclusively the domain of English, will be rendered irrelevant.

It's unfortunate that this book was so long and slow and, ultimately, disappointing. I think Ostler really had two books here, one the dense and thorough exploration of Central Asian lingua francas, the other bold prognostications about English. One 'book' is of interest only to specialists, the other makes some interesting but not completely compelling arguments. If these two 'books' had been separated out I think he could have found an audience for each. As it is, this combined tome is simultaneously too demanding for the layman and not convincing enough for the specialist.
16 of 21 people found the following review helpful
Pomposity, pedantry, and an author too in love with himself 4 July 2011
By John Peter Altgeld - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I had read Nicholas Ostler's "Empires of the Word" and enjoyed it and learned from it. Based on that positive experience and the good reviews of "The Last Lingua Franca," I bought his new book.

What a disappointment. I didn't finish the book. I rate the book as high as three stars only because Ostler is a bright and accomplished scholar and his underlying theme is a good one. From the parts I read I feel that a reader could get the most important thoughts contained in the book through reading the jacket copy or from reviews.

Academia has a lot of virtues, but in "Lingua Franca" Ostler parades the worst of the negative stereotypes of academics: smugness, pedantry, pomposity, leaden writing. The book's many errors of fact, spelling and grammar show that he and his editors need to be more attentive. Some simple examples among the many errors: on page xii in the "Acknowlegments" he refers to the English language having been spoken "these last fifteen centuries;" and on pages 11 to 12 he writes, "Secondly, at the center of the Indian Ocean coastline, the polices [sic] of India stand in contrast to those of Sri Lanka ..." -- neither "polices" nor policies are at the center of the coastline. The writing is in the inflated style of an undergraduate seeking to impress the reader.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Great book ! 4 April 2013
By Jorge - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Something to read over, go back over excerpts, etc... for anyone interested in Latin, linguistics, history, etc. Ostler's books are all always good. The kind of book I actually wished I had a hard copy of, and not the electronic one.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Excellent for its historical content and interesting ideas 27 Dec 2012
By GAC - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
A long, sprawling account of lingua francas around the world, used as case studies in an attempt to discern the future of English, the most successful such language in human history. The final argument -- that when English ends its run as global lingua franca, everyone will communicate in their own languages with technological translation aids -- seems somewhat utopian, but I can't really find a fatal flaw when you take the long view on this. Of course, regardless of what you feel about that argument, the real value of this book is the wealth of information about the linguistic history of the world, from Persian to Sogdian to German to Nahuatl and Quechua.

Be warned, this is a long and dense read. It WILL most certainly take a good chunk of time to read and process, but I think it's well worth it.
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