Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World

Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World

by Nicholas Ostler


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Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World by Nicholas Ostler

The story of the world in the last five thousand years is above all the story of its languages. Some shared language is what binds any community together and makes possible both the living of a common history and the telling of it.

Yet the history of the world's great languages has been very little told. Empires of the Word, by the wide-ranging linguist Nicholas Ostler, is the first to bring together the tales in all their glorious variety: the amazing innovations in education, culture, and diplomacy devised by speakers of Sumerian and its successors in the Middle East, right up to the Arabic of the present day; the uncanny resilience of Chinese through twenty centuries of invasions; the charmed progress of Sanskrit from north India to Java and Japan; the engaging self-regard of Greek; the struggles that gave birth to the languages of modern Europe; and the global spread of English.

Besides these epic achievements, language failures are equally fascinating: Why did German get left behind? Why did Egyptian, which had survived foreign takeovers for three millennia, succumb to Mohammed's Arabic? Why is Dutch unknown in modern Indonesia, though the Netherlands had ruled the East Indies for as long as the British ruled India?

As this book splendidly and authoritatively reveals, the language history of the world shows eloquently the real character of peoples; and, for all the recent tehnical mastery of English, nothing guarantees our language's long-term preeminence. The language future, like the language past, will be full of surprises.

Critical Praise

"Enlightening . . . Always challenging, always instructive--at times, even startling or revolutionary." --Kirkus Reviews

"Delicious! Ostler’s book shows how certain lucky languages joined humankind in its spread across the world." --John McWhorter

"What an extraordinary odyssey the author of this superb work embarked upon." --Literary Review

"A richly various book [that] offers new insights and information for almost everyone interested in the past…The author is consistently authoritative on linguistic history." --Sunday Telegraph

"Covers more rambunctious territory than any other single volume I’m aware of...A wonderful ear for the project’s poetry." --John Leonard, Harper's Magazine

"As this book splendidly and authoritatively reveals, the language history of the world shows eloquently the real character of peoples." --Bostonmagazine

"Revolutionary... Executed with a giddying depth of scholarship, yet the detail is never too thick to swamp the general reader." --Boston magazine

"True scholarship. A marvelous book, learned and instructive." --National Review

"[A] monumental new book... Ostler furnishes many fresh insights, useful historical anecdotes and charming linguistic oddities." --Chicago Tribune

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060935726
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 06/27/2006
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 640
Sales rank: 227,444
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.02(d)

About the Author

A scholar with a working knowledge of twenty-six languages, Nicholas Ostler has degrees from Oxford University in Greek, Latin, philosophy, and economics, and a Ph.D. in linguistics from MIT, where he studied under Noam Chomsky. He lives in Bath, England.

Read an Excerpt

Empires of the Word

A Language History of the World
By Nicholas Ostler

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2006 Nicholas Ostler
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060935723

Chapter One

Themistocles' Carpet

The language view of human history

From the language point of view, the present population of the world is not six billion, but something over six thousand.

There are between six and seven thousand communities in the world today identified by the first language that they speak. They are not of equal weight. They range in size from Mandarin Chinese with some 900 million speakers, alone accounting for one sixth of all the people in the world, followed by English and Spanish with approximately 300 million apiece, to a long tail of tiny communities: over half the languages in the world, for example, have fewer than five thousand speakers, and over a thousand languages have under a dozen. This is a parlous time for languages.

In considering human history, the language community is a very natural unit. Languages, by their nature as means of communication, divide humanity into groups: only through a common language can a group of people act in concert, and therefore have a common history. Moreover the language that a group shares is precisely the medium in which memories of their joint history can be shared.Languages make possible both the living of a common history, and also the telling of it.

And every language possesses another feature, which makes it the readiest medium for preserving a group's history. Every language is learnt by the young from the old, so that every living language is the embodiment of a tradition. That tradition is in principle immortal. Languages change, as they pass from the lips of one generation to the next, but there is nothing about this process of transmission which makes for decay or extinction. Like life itself, each new generation can receive the gift of its language afresh. And so it is that languages, unlike any of the people who speak them, need never grow infirm, or die.

Every language has a chance of immortality, but this is not to say that it will survive for ever. Genes too, and the species they encode, are immortal; but extinctions are a commonplace of palaeontology. Likewise, the actual lifespans of language communities vary enormously. The annals of language history are full of languages that have died out, traditions that have come to an end, leaving no speakers at all.

The language point of view on history can be contrasted with the genetic approach to human history, which is currently revolutionising our view of our distant past. Like membership in a biological species and a matrilineal lineage, membership in a language community is based on a clear relation. An individual is a member of a species if it can have offspring with other members of the species, and of a matrilineal lineage if its mother is in that lineage. Likewise, at the most basic level, you are a member of a language community if you can use its language.

The advantage of this linguistically defined unit is that it necessarily defines a community that is important to us as human beings. The species unit is interesting, in defining our prehistoric relations with related groups such as Homo erectus and the Neanderthals, but after the rise of Homo sapiens its usefulness yields to the evident fact that, species-wise, we are all in this together. The lineage unit too has its points, clearly marked down the aeons as it is by mitochondrial DNA and Y-chromosomes, and can yield interesting evidence on the origin of populations if some lineage clearly present today in the population is missing in one of the candidate groups put forward as ancestors. So it has been inferred that Polynesians could not have come from South America, that most of the European population have parentage away from the Near Eastern sources of agriculture, and that the ancestry of most of the population of the English Midlands is from Friesland. But knowing that many people's mothers, or fathers, are unaccounted for does not put a bound on a group as a whole in the way that language does.

Contrast a unit such as a race, whose boundaries are defined by nothing more than a chosen set of properties, whether as in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by superficial resemblances such as skin colour or cranial proportions, or more recently by blood and tissue groups and sequences of DNA. Likewise, there are insurmountable problems in defining its cultural analogue, the nation, which entail the further imponderables of a consciousness of shared history, and perhaps shared language too. Given that so many of the properties get shuffled on to different individuals in different generations, it remains moot as to what to make of any set of characteristics for a race or a nation.* But use of a given language is an undeniable functioning reality everywhere; above all, it is characteristic of every human group known, and persistent over generations. It provides a universal key for dividing human history into meaningful groups.

Admittedly, a language community is a more diffuse unit than a species or a lineage: a language changes much faster than a DNA sequence, and one cannot even be sure that it will always be transmitted from one generation to the next. Some children grow up speaking a language other than their parents'. As we shall soon see, language communities are not always easy to count, or to distinguish reliably. But they are undeniably real features of the human condition.

The task of this book is to chart some of the histories of the language traditions that have come to be most populous, ones that have spread themselves in the historic period over vast areas of the inhabited world. Our view will be restricted to language histories for which there is direct written evidence, and this means omitting some of the most ancient, such as the spread of Bantu across southern Africa, or of the Polynesian languages across the Pacific; but nevertheless the tale is almost always one that covers millennia ...


Excerpted from Empires of the Word by Nicholas Ostler Copyright © 2006 by Nicholas Ostler. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

John McWhorter

“Delicious! Ostler’s book shows how certain lucky languages joined humankind in its spread across the world.”

John Leonard

“Covers more rambunctious territory than any other single volume I’m aware of...A wonderful ear for the project’s poetry.”

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Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
clemmy More than 1 year ago
I got this from Bargain Books, since I like this kind of thing, and I was pleasantly surprised with how delightful a read it was. Yes, it is research; yes, it is long, and yes, the print is really tiny. But I am not about to become a linguist (or whatever in the world you have to be to be interested in this) and I read it! I actually enjoyed it and learned a great deal.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The rise and fall of major languages is something I've often thought about, but never been able to read about until 'Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World'. You can find the history of particular languages (Greek, Chinese, Latin ...) but Ostler's overview of ALL the world's major speach communities and his contrasting of their growth and decline is something I'd never seen, anywhere, previously. Highly readable, well documented - with plenty of maps - the book also has excerpts for all the languages covered (which is very enjoyable for those that are unfamiliar, giving a 'feeling' of how each sounds). Although I have a background in linguistics and am a translator by trade, I'm sure 'Empires of the Word' is accessible to anyone with an interest in history and language. It's a book I would have been proud and happy to have written myself, but Nicholas Ostler beat me to it, and undoubtedly did a far better job!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
An excellent book I've read it many times. If you love languages you will love this book.
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