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The travails of tongues,
This review is from: Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World (Hardcover)
Language is a touchy issue. Here in Canada, it's the foundation for our "Two Solitudes" of Anglo- and Franco-Canadians. Social mores, politics and education are bound up with the native language of the people engaging in debates. While this may seem like a local and limited problem, Ostler provides a sweeping picture of how language issues have permeated human history. Some have risen only to be swept away by invasions or shifts in population. Others, under the same stresses, have endured and even prospered. Is there a key to understanding why some languages have sustained their use while others fade? With immense scholarship and some fine language of his own, the author attempts to answer this and other questions about the durability of languages.
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]