Always challenging, always instructive—at times, even startling or revolutionary. The issues and concerns and discoveries...



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 8, 2005

ISBN: 0-06-621086-0

Page Count: 640

Publisher: HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2005

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...


Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

Did you like this book?


For Howard Zinn, long-time civil rights and anti-war activist, history and ideology have a lot in common. Since he thinks that everything is in someone's interest, the historian—Zinn posits—has to figure out whose interests he or she is defining/defending/reconstructing (hence one of his previous books, The Politics of History). Zinn has no doubts about where he stands in this "people's history": "it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance." So what we get here, instead of the usual survey of wars, presidents, and institutions, is a survey of the usual rebellions, strikes, and protest movements. Zinn starts out by depicting the arrival of Columbus in North America from the standpoint of the Indians (which amounts to their standpoint as constructed from the observations of the Europeans); and, after easily establishing the cultural disharmony that ensued, he goes on to the importation of slaves into the colonies. Add the laborers and indentured servants that followed, plus women and later immigrants, and you have Zinn's amorphous constituency. To hear Zinn tell it, all anyone did in America at any time was to oppress or be oppressed; and so he obscures as much as his hated mainstream historical foes do—only in Zinn's case there is that absurd presumption that virtually everything that came to pass was the work of ruling-class planning: this amounts to one great indictment for conspiracy. Despite surface similarities, this is not a social history, since we get no sense of the fabric of life. Instead of negating the one-sided histories he detests, Zinn has merely reversed the image; the distortion remains.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1979

ISBN: 0061965588

Page Count: 772

Publisher: Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: May 26, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1979

Did you like this book?