Found on Amazon.com
Paperback: 640 pages
Publisher: Harper Perennial (June 27, 2006)
Nicholas Ostler’s Empires of the Word is the first history of the world’s great tongues, gloriously celebrating the wonder of words that binds communities together and makes possible both the living of a common history and the telling of it. From the uncanny resilience of Chinese through twenty centuries of invasions to the engaging self-regard of Greek and to the struggles that gave birth to the languages of modern Europe, these epic achievements and more are brilliantly explored, as are the fascinating failures of once “universal” languages. A splendid, authoritative, and remarkable work, it demonstrates how the language history of the world eloquently reveals the real character of our planet’s diverse peoples and prepares us for a linguistic future full of surprises.
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.
Ostler’s ambitious and accessible book is not a technical linguistic study—i.e., it’s not concerned with language structure—but about the “growth, development and collapse of language communities” and their cultures. Chairman of the Foundation of Endangered Languages, Ostler’s as fascinated by extinction as he is by survival. He thus traces the fortunes of Sumerian, Akkadian and Aramaic in the flux of ancient Middle Eastern military empires. Ancient Egyptian’s three millennia of stability compares with the longevity of similarly pictographic Chinese—and provides a cautionary example: even a populous, well-defined linguistic community can vanish. In all cases, Ostler stresses the role of culture, commerce and conquest in the rise and fall of languages, whether Spanish, Portuguese and French in the Americas or Dutch in Asia and Africa. The rise of English to global status, Ostler argues, owes much to the economic prestige of the Industrial Revolution, but its future as a lingua franca may falter on demographic trends, such as booming birth rates in China. This stimulating book is a history of the world as seen through the spread and demise of languages. Maps.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. –This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
*Starred Review* Caesar led his legions into battle for the glory of Rome–and the immortality of Greek. In the curious spread of Greek through Roman conquest, Ostler recounts one of the many fascinating episodes in the complex history of languages. The resources of the cultural historian complement those of the comparative linguist in this capacious work, which sets the parameters for a new field of scholarship: “language dynamics.” By peering over Ostler’s shoulder into this new field, readers learn how languages ancient and modern (Sumerian and Egyptian; Spanish and English) spread and how they dwindle. The raw force of armies counts, of course, in determining language fortunes but for far less than the historically naive might suppose: military might failed to translate into lasting linguistic conquest for the Mongols, Turks, or Russians. Surprisingly, trade likewise proves weak in spreading a language–as the Phoenician and Dutch experiences both show. In contrast, immigration and fertility powerfully affect the fate of languages, as illustrated by the parallel histories of Egyptian and Chinese. Ostler explores the ways modern technologies of travel and communication shape language fortunes, but he also highlights the power of ancient faiths–Christian and Moslem, Buddhist and Hindu–to anchor language traditions against rapid change. Of particular interest will be Ostler’s provocative conjectures about a future in which Mandarin or Arabic take the lead or in which English fractures into several tongues. Few books bring more intellectual excitement to the study of language. Bryce Christensen
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved –This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
‘Delicious! Few books on language answer the questions that people actually ask linguists, such as why some languages are spoken by millions and others by just a few hundred. Ostler’s book shows how certain lucky languages joined humankind in its spread across the world, many off them eventually vanishing without a trace, and one of them – guess which? – currently ruling the planet.’ – John McWhorter, author of THE POWER OF BABEL: THE NATURAL HISTORY OF LANGUAGE
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 Cortes 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) (Kirkus Reviews) –This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
“True scholarship. A marvelous book, learned and instructive.” (National Review )
“A story of dramatic reversals and puzzling paradoxes. A rich… text with many piercing observations and startling comparisons.” (Los Angeles Times Book Review )
“Revolutionary… Executed with a giddying depth of scholarship, yet the detail is never too thick to swamp the general reader.” (Boston magazine )
“[A] monumental new book… Ostler furnishes many fresh insights, useful historical anecdotes and charming linguistic oddities.” (Chicago Tribune )
“A work of immense erudition.” (Christian Science Monitor )
“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 )
“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 )
“[A] wide-ranging history of the world’s languages… [Ostler] brilliantly raises questions and supplies answers or theories.” (Washington Post )
“What an extraordinary odyssey the author of this superb work embarked upon.” (Literary Review )