Blogs > Cliopatria > John Derbyshire: Review of Nicholas Ostler's Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World

Nov 8, 2005 8:32 pm

John Derbyshire: Review of Nicholas Ostler's Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World

Most of us have, at one time or another, puzzled over such historical-linguistic conundrums as: Why did only Britain, of all the Roman provinces overrun by Germans, end up speaking a Germanic language? Why did the Portuguese language “take” in Brazil, but not in Africa, while Dutch “took” in Africa but not in Indonesia? If the Phoenicians were so important in Mediterranean history, how is it that they left not a single work of literature behind? Since we know of no nation named Aramaia, whence came Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus of Nazareth? What actually happened to Sumerian? Or Mongolian, the language of a vast medieval empire?

Plainly, what we have been needing is an account of world history written from the linguistic point of view. Well, here it is. Nicholas Ostler is a professional linguist and currently chairman of the Foundation for Endangered Languages. His loving fascination with languages is plain on every page of Empires of the Word, and in the many careful transcriptions — each with a brief pronunciation guide and a translation — of passages from Nahuatl, Chinese, Akkadian, and a host of other tongues. Ostler actually has a feel for languages that, he has convinced me, goes into something beyond the merely subjective. He speaks of “some of the distinctive traits of the various traditions: Arabic’s austere grandeur and egalitarianism; Chinese and Egyptian’s unshakeable self-regard; Sanskrit’s luxuriating classifications and hierarchies; Greek’s self-confident innovation leading to self-obsession and pedantry; Latin’s civic sense; Spanish rigidity, cupidity, and fidelity; French admiration for rationality; and English admiration for business acumen.”

The story he tells — the story of the languages of human civilization — is illustrated with dozens of maps, as a book of this sort ought to be, as well as a scattering of drawings and photographs. After a brief introductory section, the narrative divides into three parts. The first describes the spread of languages, mainly by land, from the remotest past up to the Middle Ages. The second covers the last half-millennium, when European languages planted themselves all over the world, carried mainly by sea (Russian being the chief exception here). In a short final section, Ostler surveys the current language map, and offers some speculations about the future....

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