51 of 51 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent and Readable
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...
Published on 29 April 2007 by David Welsh
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
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. 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...
Published 5 months ago by B. J. O'Brien
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51 of 51 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent and Readable,
This review is from: Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World (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...)
108 of 110 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars History speaks,
This review is from: Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World (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. Some significant civilizational 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 but has disappeared from Indonesia. French & Russian are in decline, having lost much prestige and many speakers the last few decades.
Ostler differentiates between languages that grew organically (like Chinese) and those that grew by "merger and acquisition". Of the former, Mandarin Chinese is spoken by more than a billion people whilst English with around 500 million, is in second place. Hindi (derived from Sanskrit) is third with about 490 million, followed by Spanish in 4th place with 418 million speakers. Of course as a second language, English is of greater global importance than Mandarin. The book is full of fascinating facts and stuff that will appeal to linguists and hobbyists alike. For example: There are an estimated 7000 linguistic communities today, but at least half of them are on the verge of extinction with fewer than 5000 speakers. Within one generation many of these languages will disappear.
Migration was the primary cause of language spread. Global navigation arrived later and today we have electronic communication. There is an interesting passage of speculation on the future of English. Ostler identifies prestige & learnability as the two main growth factors in creating a larger human community. The first might offer wealth, wisdom or literary enjoyment to attract speakers. The ability to learn a new language depends on structural similarities between the population group's existing language & the new one. Owing to structural correspondences, Arabic took root where Afro-Asiatic languages like Egyptian & Aramaic were spoken but it could not displace Persian or Spanish. It is well known that speakers of Japanese learn Turkish easily but battle with English for the same reason.
For those interested in the many facets of language, I also recommend: On the Origin of Languages and A Guide to the World's Languages by Merritt Ruhlen, The Unfolding of Language by Guy Deutscher, Genes, Peoples, and Languages & The Great Human Diasporas by Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza plus The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language by John McWhorter. As a linguistic history of the world, Empires Of The Word is unique, highly readable and a valuable reference source. It contains many tables & figures as well as beautiful and informative maps. This well-researched and absorbing work concludes with notes, an index and a bibliography.
63 of 65 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars History speaks!,
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". Of the former, Mandarin Chinese is spoken by more than a billion people whilst English with around 500 million, is in second place. Hindi (derived from Sanskrit) is third with about 490 million, followed by Spanish in 4th place with 418 million speakers. Of course as a second language, English is of greater global importance than Mandarin.
The book is full of fascinating facts and stuff that will appeal to all those interested in language - linguists and hobbyists alike. For example: There are an estimated 7000 linguistic communities today, but at least half of them are on the verge of extinction with fewer than 5000 speakers. Within one generation, many of these languages will disappear.
For those interested in the many facets of language, I also recommend: On The Origin Of Language and A Guide To The World's Languages by Merritt Ruhlen, The Unfolding Of Language by Gary Deutscher, How To Kill a Dragon by Calvert Watkins, Genes, Peoples, and Languages by Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza and The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language by John McWhorter. For written examples of many languages, there is The Book Of A Thousand Tongues by the United Bible Societies.
Empires Of The Word contains many beautiful and informative maps. This well-researched and engaging work concludes with notes, an index and a bibliography.
19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Audacious scope, masterly execution,
This review is from: Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World (Paperback)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!
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Badly Written on Several Levels,
This review is from: Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World (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 ... is a term for the language as formulated in the grammar books, contrasting it with its colloquial dialects, known as the Prakrits.' After reading the whole chapter twice I think I know what the author means by that clumsy sentence; ie something like this There was a language, Sanskrit, that had numerous dialects (which were called Prakrits). In everyday life people normally spoke one of those dialects. A more refined form of the language also existed.
With that made clear the reader will want to know: So when was the refined form of the language used? Soon the author gives an indication, albeit rather clumsily. He starts a paragraph: `Although it is religious tradition which has proved the most reliable preserver of Sanskrit .... .' It would have been much clearer if he'd written a sentence along the lines of: `The refined form of the language was used as follows:...'
From the above it follows that the term `Sanskrit' has two different senses: Sanskrit1 (my terminology), a whole family of related dialects, used in everyday speech; Sanskrit2, a certain cultured language, not normally used in everyday speech. It is pretty vital to grasp this distinction, but the author doesn't make it explicitly. Consequently the alert reader has to waste energy by constantly judging which of the two the author means when he refers to `Sanskrit'. In the text: `..by the beginning of the fifth century BC the language was spoken in area extending as far west as Bihar.. (p176) that is presumably Sanskrit1. ' When he says: ` .. in these inscriptions .. Sanskrit is used for the verse, Prakrit for the prose ...' (p188) that must be Sanskrit2. When he says: ` .. major Sanskrit-speaking states were set up all other South-East Asia ... (p204)', um, that is a puzzle. From the context I'm pretty sure he means Sanskrit2, but it isn't at all clear by whom or in what circumstances Sanskrit2 was spoken in South-East Asia.
In fact one simple question that will occur to the thoughtful reader remains unconsidered throughout this 50-page chapter: outside the context of religious ceremony and the recitation of literature to what extent was Sanskrit2 a spoken language?
The whole chapter is just poorly written. A skilled writer would have recognised the key distinctions and issues to get across in this chapter, and would have made sure that happened.
Item 5. The author says a good deal about Latin and just occasionally slips in a mention of `vulgar Latin'. There seems to be no definition or explanation of `vulgar Latin'. (I can't say for sure since the index doesn't contain `vulgar Latin'). If you as an author are going to use two different but cognate concepts such as `Latin' and `vulgar Latin' it is just basic good practice to include a clear explanation of the relationship between the two terms.
Item 6. (p532) .. the two largest languages in Indonesia, Javanese (75 million) and Sundanese (27 million) ... have recently sustained a massive switch to the national language, Bahasa Indonesia (now with over 200 million speakers, if mainly as a second language)' This is very poorly worded. Does it mean that the totals for Javanese and Sundanese have gone down because many speakers now speak Bahasa Indonesia instead? Or does it mean that Javanese and Sundanese have maintained their figures despite the fact that many speakers have recently acquired Bahasa Indonesia as well? Since I happen to know this field I'd say that the second is more likely to be true, but it is impossible to be sure of that from the clumsy text.
Item 7. (p532 same quote as Item 6). The term `second language' is used as if it were a straightforward, easily intelligible term. But it isn't. Suppose a man speaks Sundanese at home with his family and Bahasa Indonesia at work, using the language in the proportions 40:60. Which one is the `second language'? A tricky question but representative of a number of other matters which in a book of this size on this subject the author should have discussed quite thoroughly. (The index doesn't contain `second language')
Item 8. The concept of a creole language (ie, a language formed by the merger of several) is certainly pretty relevant to the book's subject. The term is first mentioned briefly on p10 without definition. Next on p292 the text includes the phrase `language mixing, or creolisation' and that is as far as definition goes; it is suggested that British and Irish Celtic have experienced this phenomenon. On p390 with mention of Indo-Portuguese creoles and on p415 with French creoles the author goes right ahead on the assumption that the reader knows exactly what is meant by the term. He doesn't say what the other languages were that mixed with Portuguese and French respectively. I rather doubt that British and Irish Celtic are in fact good examples of creolisation but that isn't the main point, because I'm less concerned with the factual content than with the quality of authorial judgement. Since creolisation is such a relevant concept in the development of the world's languages, the author should have realised that the book needed far more explanation and analysis of it.
Item 9. Lingua franca is another key concept. It has plenty of index entries: no less than 20 languages serving as a lingua franca are separately indexed. I've looked at the five entries that come earliest in the book. None of them give an adequate definition and analysis of the term. The author just assumes that any reader with no prior knowledge of linguistics knows the one and only meaning of that term. In a book of this size he should have done better than that. For example, a lingua franca that is nobody's main language (eg Latin at some periods) is a different thing from one that is the main language of many of its speakers but by no means all (eg English now). A national language like Bahasa Indonesia is another case again. Then there is the matter of the relation between the concepts of lingua franca and creole languages . . The author should have realised when planning the book that it was worth giving the reader a good insight into this concept.
Item 10. Substrate is another of those important concepts in language development that deserved fuller treatment. It doesn't appear in the index at all. However I did notice it on p292 with reference to Celtic. The text there rather gives the impression that `substrate' is a hypothesis that applies only to the particular case of Celtic. The author surely knows very well that this is phenomenon (or at least hypothesis) is applicable to very many cases of linguistic change. So here we have both a clumsily written piece of text and a wrong judgement about the amount of emphasis the concept deserved.
Item 11. Anybody developing a book of this size about this subject ought to notice pretty early on in the project that there is a big strategic design decision to be faced. You want to tell a number of different stories (story of Sanskrit, story of Europe's languages abroad etc). To understand one story the reader needs to grasp a number of general concepts in linguistic change (lingua franca, substrate, spread of language by conquest etc); to understand another story some but not all of the same general concepts come into play again; and so on. So how do you structure your 600-page book?
One approach is to frontload the book with substantial accounts of all the main general concepts, so that the reader gets thoroughly familiar with them. Only after that go on to tell the separate stories, constantly showing which general concepts apply to each story. The alternative approach is to start off telling the stories and introduce each general concept thoroughly as and when it first comes up. Thus many concepts will come in the first story. In the second story you introduce and explain thoroughly any further concepts that are relevant, while just referring without explanation to those concepts already covered in the previous chapter. And so on.
It is a hard thing to say but I suspect that Ostler didn't think carefully enough about the design of this book. What he has produced is a very feeble version of the second option, where instead of introducing concepts thoroughly on their first appearance, he just skids through them as briskly as possible. This is a strategic authorial blunder that results in a fundamentally unsatisfactory book.
The above set of items shows authorial incompetence at several different levels: faulty book strategy; irrelevant material; failure to define things; failure to stress essential distinctions; clumsy sentences. If you happen to know about some of the languages covered, then their parts of the book can be pretty irritating; and the parts about the other languages don't inspire confidence that you are getting any accurate insight.
17 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating study,
This review is from: Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World (Paperback)This book seeks to examine the history of the world through the spread of languages and the empires that built those languages. Usually these subjects have been completely seperate. There has always been the history of empires such as Rome or the early Arabian empire of Islam. There has also been linguistical studies of language, such as Languadoc or Mandarin Chinese. Obviously the two are intertwined but no one has ever attempted a complete synthesis of the two.
This book fills this void and in doing so sheds light on why some languages suceed and other fail, why some die out(Coptic, Aramaic and Greek in the East) and others are brilliantly successful and rarely pushed back(Arabic and English). It also does a great deal of comparison, examining Coptic/Egyptian and Chinese as 'triumphs of fertility' and how each coped with foreign invasions differently.
The maps are brilliant and shed light on long forgotten histories such as Christianity in Iraq and Iran.
There is a wonderful chapter on Sanskrit and its development in India and its spread and subsequent decline in South and Southeast Asia. There are chapters on the well known histories of Greek and Latin and lesser known examinations of the role of Greek in Asia. The chapter on Celtic(Run) is fascinating.
The last third of the book examines languages borne by the sea, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and English.
One of the most readable and original books of the year.
Seth J. Frantzman
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The World in a Million Words,
This review is from: Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World (Paperback)Ever wondered why we speak English, a Germanic language, rather than a Romance language? After all wasn't Britain famously conquered by both the Romans and the Normans? Then again, why don't we speak a Celtic language? Why aren't we all speaking a language closer to Welsh or Gaelic? And actually, once you start thinking about it, what happened to Egyptian after that whole hieroglyphic success? And why has Chinese survived for thousands of years? If you want the answers to all of those questions and more, then this book has it covered.
I found this a really interesting premise for a book: How and why languages rise and fall in cultural, social and political significance. There were lots of moments in this book which were genuinely surprising and memorable and it will leave you looking at the current dominance of English in a very different light. My only reservation is that despite its accessibility, the book does assume some background linguistic knowledge and some chapters end up stylistically drier than others which is why I have only given it four stars. However, I heartily recommend this book to anyone interested in the area and I for one, will definitely be looking up his other books.
16 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The travails of tongues,
Unlike many books on language, this one doesn't rely on grammatical lineages or word tracing, but on the people's usage. Language, Ostler says, is the foundation of human community. The tie between an identified language and the culture it supports is intimate and enduring. To lose a culture may mean the loss of language - and vice versa. As this book's title shows however, empires have swept through populations without destroying the indigenous culture. Hence, some languages endure because the culture endured. Paying taxes to a new ruler may strip the purse, but not the mind. Foreign soldiers occupying a city are more likely to be forced to learn the local language for things as simple as buying food or asking directions. Stronger forces than armies are required to displace a language. The identity of a people isn't determined by occupation, but by interaction.
History has shown that economics can outperform armies in exercising an impact on language. Languages of trade have a long history of crossing boundaries. The Phoenicans, who never formed a nation of their own, were the major traders in the Mediterranean, interacting with many societies. Record-keeping for trade purposes laid the foundation for many subsequent languages. Ostler declares the Phoenicians provided the "primary education" for the remainder of Europe. Yet, no element of their language has persisted into modern times. Aramaic, on the other hand, was the "lingua franca" of Babylon and Persia. It resisted repeated imperial overrunnings until Greek supplanted it, at least among the educated. All these lingering or disrupted language developments show that no matter how dominant a language may seem to the people using it, a new or more powerful force may loom almost unseen before overtaking the established language with a new one. English, often considered the first "global" language, may sustain severe pressure as "global economics" continually shifts its locus of power.
In short, there are no simple, nor hard and fast, rules governing language persistence. The only certainty is that language changes and shifts from different causes. Economic forces and social changes derived from modern colonial enterprise has reduced language diversity. Of seven thousand language groups remaining in the world, more than half are sustained by a few thousand speakers. How many of these languages can be saved? Should they be saved? If the language forms the community, it will survive. If the community willingly changes its culture, the language will go extinct, as many have. Ostler's examination of these and a host of questions makes fascinating reading. With a strong sense of history and great insight for cause and effect, he's provided a monumental study. The book is more than just history and will prompt many questions as you turn the pages. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
14 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars extrordinary achievement,
By A Customer
reviews have been right about its range and brilliance. Ostler has developed a
new crossover discipline incorporating history, linguistics, sociology and
philosophy in his approach to world history. Full of fascination it offers a
completely new and wider view of where the peoples of the world have come from
and where they are going. The wealth of illuminating information and intriguing
connections are the expression of a widely educated mind driven by intellectual
curiosity. Beautifully written with great flashes of humour and occasional
poetry, it is stuffed with good things - illustrative maps, rivetting footnotes
and all wrapped up in an attractive, erudite-puzzle of a jacket. Everyone who
thinks of themselves as educated needs to read this book and anyone who wants a
few arcane and eyepopping facts to produce during a dinner party conversation
will find a lifetime's worth here. Like the sea it's wide and deep and filled
with brilliant and mysterious things.
3.0 out of 5 stars Read with caution,
This review is from: Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World (Paperback)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. However the text on p. 425 is missing its letter accents and one letter. The correct text is found on Wikipedia (http://lt.wikipedia.org/wiki/T%C4%97ve_m%C5%ABs%C5%B3, you can also get there by going to the Lord's Prayer and then opening the lietuviu language page). it is odd that here he cannot use Lithuanian letters, but with Perkunas (p.284) he could. P. 438 makes it sound like the Bible had been translated into Lithuanian only in the 19th century, when the complete Bible had been translated into Lithuanian during 1579-90 (http://lt.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biblija#Lietuvi.C5.A1ka_Biblija). P. 439 he uses 'civil life' instead of 'civilian life'. Perhaps he mentions it in pages not available to preview (although it does not look like he does), but the reason for the low literacy rates in Russia was that serfdom was abolished only in the 19th century (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serfdom_in_Russia#The_Abolition_of_Serfdom_in_Russia).
His arguments are interesting, but there are obviously mistakes as well. So I would read this book cautiously.
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Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World by Nicholas Ostler (Paperback - 18 Sep 2006)