Ostler does not assume specialist knowledge, but he does assume that his readers share his gargantuan and voluptuary...

THE LAST LINGUA FRANCA

ENGLISH UNTIL THE RETURN OF BABEL

A bracing history of lingua francas and their dynamic variation, with a focus on the perfect wave that International English is riding—toward a wipeout, predicts Foundation for Endangered Languages founder Ostler (Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin, 2007, etc.).

Will English be “the last lingua franca,” exempt from the processes of “ruin, relegation, and resignation” that wasted such precursors as Akkadian, Aramaic, Greek, Persian, Sanskrit and Latin? David Crystal (English as a Global Language) and David Graddol (The Future of English) thought so, and Ostler agrees—but with a subversive twist. English’s days as the international bridge language for business, diplomacy, science, technology, education and entertainment are numbered, but its hegemonic place won’t be taken by another language, he writes. The same trend of technological innovation that spurred the triumphal expansion of English will unseat it. Continuing advances in machine translation and real-time speech-to-speech translation between any two languages will end the world’s need for one privileged interlingual language. In the ensuing egalitarian era of Babel, English will shrink back to its mother-tongue hinterland, freeing billions from ESL drudgery. Techno-utopian speculations aside, most of the matter in this book was prefigured in Ostler’s Empires of the Word (2005), which ranged across all imperial languages, both lingua francas and not (like Egyptian and Chinese). Sections on the meteoric rise and coming flame-out of International English bracket a middle section drilling down into past lingua francas, with two meaty and occasionally pedantic chapters dedicated to Persian. The author employs the same exuberantly comparative approach as Empires and recycles, sometimes verbatim, many of its arguments, parallels, anecdotes and paleographic examples. Ostler reproduces the latter in their original scripts, together with transliterations and translations. His aim is not pedantic but to pique general readers’ code-cracking interest.

Ostler does not assume specialist knowledge, but he does assume that his readers share his gargantuan and voluptuary appetite for words, languages and history.

Pub Date: Dec. 1, 2010

ISBN: 978-0-8027-1771-9

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Walker

Review Posted Online: Aug. 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2010

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Necessarily swift and adumbrative as well as inclusive, focused, and graceful.

A LITTLE HISTORY OF POETRY

A light-speed tour of (mostly) Western poetry, from the 4,000-year-old Gilgamesh to the work of Australian poet Les Murray, who died in 2019.

In the latest entry in the publisher’s Little Histories series, Carey, an emeritus professor at Oxford whose books include What Good Are the Arts? and The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books, offers a quick definition of poetry—“relates to language as music relates to noise. It is language made special”—before diving in to poetry’s vast history. In most chapters, the author deals with only a few writers, but as the narrative progresses, he finds himself forced to deal with far more than a handful. In his chapter on 20th-century political poets, for example, he talks about 14 writers in seven pages. Carey displays a determination to inform us about who the best poets were—and what their best poems were. The word “greatest” appears continually; Chaucer was “the greatest medieval English poet,” and Langston Hughes was “the greatest male poet” of the Harlem Renaissance. For readers who need a refresher—or suggestions for the nightstand—Carey provides the best-known names and the most celebrated poems, including Paradise Lost (about which the author has written extensively), “Kubla Khan,” “Ozymandias,” “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads, which “changed the course of English poetry.” Carey explains some poetic technique (Hopkins’ “sprung rhythm”) and pauses occasionally to provide autobiographical tidbits—e.g., John Masefield, who wrote the famous “Sea Fever,” “hated the sea.” We learn, as well, about the sexuality of some poets (Auden was bisexual), and, especially later on, Carey discusses the demons that drove some of them, Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath among them. Refreshingly, he includes many women in the volume—all the way back to Sappho—and has especially kind words for Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop, who share a chapter.

Necessarily swift and adumbrative as well as inclusive, focused, and graceful.

Pub Date: April 21, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-300-23222-6

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Yale Univ.

Review Posted Online: Feb. 9, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2020

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SLEEPERS

An extraordinary true tale of torment, retribution, and loyalty that's irresistibly readable in spite of its intrusively melodramatic prose. Starting out with calculated, movie-ready anecdotes about his boyhood gang, Carcaterra's memoir takes a hairpin turn into horror and then changes tack once more to relate grippingly what must be one of the most outrageous confidence schemes ever perpetrated. Growing up in New York's Hell's Kitchen in the 1960s, former New York Daily News reporter Carcaterra (A Safe Place, 1993) had three close friends with whom he played stickball, bedeviled nuns, and ran errands for the neighborhood Mob boss. All this is recalled through a dripping mist of nostalgia; the streetcorner banter is as stilted and coy as a late Bowery Boys film. But a third of the way in, the story suddenly takes off: In 1967 the four friends seriously injured a man when they more or less unintentionally rolled a hot-dog cart down the steps of a subway entrance. The boys, aged 11 to 14, were packed off to an upstate New York reformatory so brutal it makes Sing Sing sound like Sunnybrook Farm. The guards continually raped and beat them, at one point tossing all of them into solitary confinement, where rats gnawed at their wounds and the menu consisted of oatmeal soaked in urine. Two of Carcaterra's friends were dehumanized by their year upstate, eventually becoming prominent gangsters. In 1980, they happened upon the former guard who had been their principal torturer and shot him dead. The book's stunning denouement concerns the successful plot devised by the author and his third friend, now a Manhattan assistant DA, to free the two killers and to exact revenge against the remaining ex-guards who had scarred their lives so irrevocably. Carcaterra has run a moral and emotional gauntlet, and the resulting book, despite its flaws, is disturbing and hard to forget. (Film rights to Propaganda; author tour)

Pub Date: July 10, 1995

ISBN: 0-345-39606-5

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Ballantine

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 1995

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