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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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780062047359
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 03/22/2011
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 640
Sales rank: 17,018
File size: 1 MB

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.

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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.
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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 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 15 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.
Anonymous 7 months ago
Shrike58 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Ostler is at his best when writing about "classic" languages such as Sumerian, Sanskrit, Greek, or Chinese, and why they were influential. When he's writing about modern languages and their desemination this book comes off more as a potted history of Western imperialism, in regards to pointing out the limitations of force and power in terms of spreading a language. This is apart from good observations on the nature of English and the fall of Latin.
annbury on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Very enjoyable work of linguistic history (NOT historical linguistics) that looks at how and why some languages came to be used by millions of non-native speakers, while others remained firmly stuck in their own back yards. Impressively well researched with a heavy reliance on contemporary sources, very well written, and thought-provoking from both linguistic and historical perspectives.
danawl on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
very detailed, exhaustive, fascinating
drmarymccormack on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I'm very interested in this subject but this book is dry. How about some prose and a couple of interesting asides?
thierry on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
In the end, achieves nothing. Attempt at a sweeping, encyclopedic and truly monumental overview of the world's major languages and linguistic families. In a mix of linguistics and history, traces their origin, evolution and future. Much information contained therein, some language groups stronger than others but the author over-reaches, does not offer enough, is not illustrative in his examples, and is unfortunately unclear at times. Much was expected of this book, much was promised, but ultimately, achieves little. Hence the rating.
MeditationesMartini on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Tour de force! Not a perfect book, no, but only in the sense that nothing is perfect in this imperfectest of all worlds. He drops in and out of giving those all-important pronunciation guides, which start out making the book seem so immaculate. And the whole project of "world language history" is so macro that the later chapters, on French and Russian and English especially, have a bit of a survey-of-familiar-ground-with-tidbits feel. But these are small, not to say churlish, objections. This book is huge, with amazing sweep. It provides a theoretical framework that is fresh and of utility to the scholar as well as the armchair historian and/or pedant. It gives you the joy of getting new sounds and strange civilizations into your head, helps you understand the contingencies and the might-have-beens, and delivers up worlds beyond your imagination. And hell, I like the linguistic essentialism of "Arabic¿s austere grandeur and egalitarianism; Chinese and Egyptian¿s unshakeable self-regard; Sanskrit¿s luxuriating classifications and hierarchies; Greek¿s self-confident innovation leading to self-obsession and pedantry; Latin¿s civic sense; Spanish rigidity, cupidity, and fidelity; French admiration for rationality; and English admiration for business acumen," and if that makes me a shameless modernist, well, (it doesn't, but) so be it. This book makes me feel very good about an MA in English language, and I learned a lot more along with the affirmation than I would have from PAolo Coelho or "Tuesdays with Morrie."
sabreader on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Fascinating history of major languages going back to the earliest written records in the Middle East, South Asia, East Asia, Europe, and the Americas. Ostler attempts to explain why some languages succeed and others don't, in terms of increasing number of speakers and spreading into new territories. The explanations are somewhat convincing but very uneven. Sometimes he seems to be rushing just to cover stuff, in particular the chapter on European languages other than English. And while he knows his languages, the interpretation of history is perhaps a bit spotty, especially as we get to the 20th century. That said, this was a good read. I learned a lot about non-European languages and their spread, as well as about the process of the spread of Germanic and Romance languages in Europe.
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