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109 of 111 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars History speaks, 25 Sep 2006
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.
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Showing 1-1 of 1 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 24 Apr 2010 15:57:13 BDT
Captain Wow says:
A comprehensive review that omits nothing, almost precluding the necessity to buy the book. The only thing left for the reader now is to sit back and enjoy the language of Ostler: erudite and articulate, he communicates with consumate melodious skill.
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