Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Book 02/50 Empires of the Word

Empires of the Word  - Nicholas Ostler    fiftyfiftyme category:   Minor

"In writing this book, I have consciously been embarking on a new approach within the general field of linguistics....This kind of work might be called the study of language dynamics." That's how Ostler sums up the purpose of his book in its penultimate paragraph, and it nicely highlights the challenge he set himself. From the perspective of an enthusiastic amateur, I think he succeeded admirably.

This book is not a book on how languages develop , their structural or etymological relationships to other languages, or a reconstructive history of the languages themselves. Instead, it examines how and why some languages thrive and spread, building "Empires of the Word", and then traces the inevitable fall of those empires. It is a fascinating approach and one that Ostler pulls off well. A dense 568 pages, it traces the rise and fall of language empires from Akkadian through to Aramaic and Arabic, Sanskrit to Swahili and Spanish. It answers intriguing questions I'd never even thought to ask, such as "Why did Germanic invaders never succeed in implanting their language on the lands they conquered, with one outstanding exception?" "Why did Spanish thrive in Spain's South American colonies, but not in the Philippines?" and  "What marks Russian as different from other European "empire-building" languages?"

Ostler's scholarship is clear throughout the book, but it's also clear that he's written with a wider audience in mind. I enjoyed being challenged by it, but it was always accessible, without any cutesy pop-style dumbing down of its material.  It is an ambitious undertaking, to try to document several millennia of linguistic and socio-political history in one book, but only occasionally does the going get a little sluggish. The focus is always on the languages, so political and other issues are discussed in the light of how they impacted on the growth, survival or stagnation of the languages being looked at, and that clarity of focus is central to making the book an enjoyable read.  

If you have an interest in language, or history, or both,  I would strongly recommend this book. I think it makes an excellent companion to Guy Deutscher's The Unfolding of Language.  I look forward to reading more Ostler as part of my linguistics minor for FiftyFiftyMe


  1. That sounds very interesting. Weird fact about me, I have always been interested in languages my whole life, but as a child had a hard time getting interested in history. It's only as an adult when I realized how much of understanding relationships among languages IS understanding the movement of people and cultures that I was able to find a way to sink my teeth into history and really start learning and retaining some. Linguistics saved my intellectual curiosity!

  2. I can relate! I love the persistent mysteries that linger throughout history by means of language. It seems to me that Ostler, Deutscher and David Crystal have pretty much got the "mass-market" linguistics field sewn up, although Crystal's focus is on English.