EMPIRES OF THE WORD by Nicholas Ostler


A Language History of the World
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A dense but enlightening account of how the world’s written languages were born, how they spread and changed, how some weakened and died, how others thrived.

This heavy, sturdy text rests on a foundation of scholarship and erudition so broad and deep that it will elicit gasps of admiration from professional linguists and assorted logophiles, though its very complexity and comprehensiveness may overwhelm general readers. Even the epigraphs—and there are myriads—are demanding, even daunting. British scholar Ostler (chair of the Foundation for Endangered Languages) notes that there are as many as 7,000 language communities in the world, but many have relatively few speakers, and many have no written form. He proceeds to relate a history of the world as a linguist would see it. Accordingly, although the encounter, say, between Cortés and the Aztecs has interest for military and cultural historians, Ostler views it, as well, as a clash between languages, both of which had long traditions. He proceeds to look at languages in the Middle East (Sumerian, Akkadian, Aramaic, Phoenician, Arabic, Persian, etc.), then turns to consider Egyptian and Chinese and attributes their stability, in part, to high population density. He discusses Sanskrit (a “luxuriant” language with its “blending of sexual and mystical imagery”), then Greek, Celtic, Latin, Spanish, Portuguese and many, many others. His style is to raise questions and then answer them. Why didn’t Dutch linger in Indonesia? How did French become a prestige language? Why haven’t Russian and German and Japanese spread more than they have? How did English, with its multiple parents, spread so rapidly and pervasively? How did it standardize? What are the most dominant languages today? Why do people learn some languages more easily than others? What are the forces that might weaken the current hegemony of English around the world?

Always challenging, always instructive—at times, even startling or revolutionary. The issues and concerns and discoveries here merit far wider attention than this sometimes turgid text will attract. (maps and charts throughout)

Pub Date: July 8th, 2005
ISBN: 0-06-621086-0
Page count: 640pp
Publisher: HarperCollins
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 2005


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