book-reviews

Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World

by Nicholas Ostler

Rating: ★★★★

A scholarly, wide-ranging book which ambitiously spans both the history of various languages and history as seen through the lens of language, something Ostler terms diachronic sociolinguistics. The overall result is an impressive survey both of what it is that causes languages to spread and grow, and big-picture world history. Ostler keeps his text edifying and engaging throughout, from the very first cuneiform-marked coins right up to the dawn of the digital age.

On the major content chapters:

The Desert Blooms was an excellent opening, thoroughly fascinating me with the previously-murky history of the earliest states in the Fertile Crescent, and filled with great tidbits of historical linguistics. Learning about the relationship between the literary Sumerian and the ascendant Akkadian was rewarding enough by itself, but it was particularly charming to learn that the Sumerians had a distinct dialect for women, and that this was not (as such tongues usually are) a low-status language, but one in which respected poetry and hymns were written, to be embedded along with the Sumerian-venerating Akkadian culture into posterity. I did find this chapter a bit puzzling for Ostler's deadpan treatment of the Christian pentecostal myth, but it wasn't too hard to shrug this off.

Triumphs of Fertility compares Egyptian and Chinese, revealing several deep similarities between the two extraordinarily long-lived cultures that make them great comparable case studies.

Charming Like a Creeper -- a somewhat weird title choice, I thought. Sanskrit certainly sounds fascinating, more like Latin than Latin ever was, but I admit that this seemed one of the weaker chapters, because Ostler wasn't able to demonstrate a lot of the charm that he stressed was part of the authority of the language. I cannot deny that learning about the poet Kaviraja (the name 'poet-king' is well-earned), was not some way there, though. By erasing word-boundaries and making good use of Sanskrit's facility for punning, his work simultaneously reproduces the two great Indian epics in one single text. That is, you can read the text as the Ramayana or you can read it as the Mahabharata, with whole seams of text becoming different passages that recognisably relate these cultural touchpoints.

Three Thousand Years of Solipsism was a lot more historical, and I think I felt that Ostler was attempting not to spend too much time on a topic (Greek) that was already done to death.

Contesting Europe held my interest mostly as a high-level survey of Europe in the millennium surrounding 1 AD. It was a little disappointing that the conclusion about the Celtic languages was so focused on the lack of early evidence about them, and not later evidence. Surprisingly light on the Latin, as Ostler is more interested in why German seems not to stick.

Usurpers of Greatness was a bit of a whirlwind, with so many unfamiliar American tongues being introduced and summarised and then shown the door in a chapter that was mostly about the spread of Spanish in the new world. The significance of the earnest religious motivations toward the natives was quite well communicated, seeming to further the 'shield of faith' message raised in the first chapter, with an extension in that religion is mostly a conservative force for languages -- even if the religion is not native to the language community.

In the Train of Empire did a reasonable job of covering the unavoidable and richly-varied topic of European colonialism and the many different ways languages did not simply spread according to what the 'might and influence' theory would suggest. The study of French, amusingly, came off as doting and dismissive.

Microcosm or Distorting Mirror? Ostler has done a lot of the groundwork in snippets before we get here, so the coverage of English does not feel too much like a recap of some other book. The chapter starts getting a bit too hung up on English's current status at the end, but I very much enjoyed the various quotes from different stages of English. A bit surprisingly, all of these were intelligible to some extent -- even my puzzling of the oldest one turned out to be roughly accurate.

Ostler concludes by surveying generally the current state of the world, linguistically, and pulling out the big factors that come from his analysis. The major cause of linguistic growth seems to be the resettlement of existing speakers. Intriguingly, it might be particularly the settlement of female speakers that is--or was--key, as his example from French Canada shew. I'm fairly happy with his evidence for this, given over the course of the book, as of course a great many different causes can themselves lead to these resettlements. On the whole, a good read for either its linguistics or its history.