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Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World
Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World
by Nicholas Ostler
Edition: Paperback
Price: £16.00

18 of 19 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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