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5.0 out of 5 stars Overwhelming, 16 Jan 2014
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This review is from: Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World (Paperback)
As a kind of linguist - I qualified as an English teacher and later as a teacher of English as a Foreign Language - I've had a fascination and a semi-professional interest (it's many years since I actually taught) with languages for many years, often frustrated at my limited ability in foreign languages. In recent years I've had a little more time to address that frustration, and things are a little better, so then I also started to wonder how things all fit together. When I happened upon it, Empires Of The Word looked exactly what I needed to scratch the itch.

Upon opening it I was hooked. Starting off with the early languages of the Middle East and proceeding into those of two great empires, those of Egypt and China, the author discusses the patterns and paradoxes of language development and dispersal, and sometimes demise. Some languages spread by association with the powerful, some decline despite that association. Conversely, there are languages whose speakers find themselves constantly overrun by imperial powers but survive, and even thrive. Some languages, such as Egyptian, become the language of scholars or clerics and become the preserve of niches, as Egyptian is now preserved as Coptic, the territory of a minority of clerics in a minority population.

There are copious examples from early texts, in the original languages, rendered in both the original ideographs and, where necessary, phonetically. In amongst these you'll find some interesting gems, as in the translation of a biblical verse which includes a couple of profanities. Don't remember being told that in Sunday School!

With Mandarin Chinese we begin to straddle ancient and modern, and to compare the fates of modern imperial languages - French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian and English - and analyse the reasons behind the adoption of some in their spheres of colonisation whilst others, most notably Russian, have been as if coated in Teflon. In places it feels like Ostler is missing a trick, for example in understating, if not totally overlooking, the fact that catholic missionaries in the Americas were able to wield great power by learning local languages and not teaching Spanish, surely one of the reasons the Spanish monarchy felt threatened by them, expelled them, and insisted on all teaching being in Spanish, so they could be sure they were sending and receiving the right messages. This is a point better made by Nadeau and Barlow in The Story Of Spanish. But mostly Ostler's coverage seems sufficiently comprehensive, and often the facts are overwhelming, almost too much to take in.

Only towards the end do things become a little unnecessary, especially in the long ramble through the possible fate of English. There are many things about which I could get sentimental, but a natural withering away of a language isn't one of them. I'd be much more outraged if someone was trying to actively eradicate English, but the history of that kind of thing has a chequered history, as the Basques, Catalans, Canadian and Cajun French (the latter mysteriously glossed over by Ostler) and numerous language groups in South Africa can attest.

A few tics. First, why is a book like this is so hooked on the BC/AD convention? BCE/CE may not be perfect, but at least avoids reference to a "Lord" many of us consider "Ours" as much as is Baal (the lord, as Ostler helpfully tells us). Second, a puzzling inability to employ possessives, in the irritating and inexplicable habit of ending any word ending in an s with just an apostrophe, not apostrophe s. It's particularly annoying and illogical when applied to words like "Descartes". If you don't know why, how have you even managed to read this far? Third, in a book in many parts of which I found myself pre-knowledge free, we come across two references to a place called "El Andalus", a name never used for Moorish Spain (google it and you'll find El Andalus is a restaurant in Brum). Such things are a kind of checksum, alerting you to the possibility that there are other errors, and it reduces the credibility of whatever else you read just a little. Fifth, the footnotes. Too many; too long. Sixth, there really is no need, when referring to another part of the book, to give chapter number, chapter title and page; page on its own is quicker and won't make the book fifty pages longer than it needs to be. And just to be really captious, he uses that bane of the supermarket queue, "less than 800,000" when it should be "fewer", and the word "quote" as a noun. It's a verb; the noun is "quotation".
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Location: Herts, UK

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