Empires of the Word:
A Language History of the World

Nicholas Ostler

Harper 2005
A book review by Danny Yee © 2022 https://dannyreviews.com/
Empires of the Word is a broad-ranging survey of the world's "imperial" languages, those which spread and have been used over large areas. Ostler argues that linguistic features do make a difference — a core goal is "to suggest ways in which it might actually matter what type of language a community speaks" — but his focus is on the connections of language with political power, religious belief, trade, social structures, and so forth. He compares languages at a very large scale, looking at their long-term histories rather than at the details of their grammar or phonology.

"The Desert Blooms" looks at Akkadian, Aramaic and Arabic as successive West Semitic languages of civilization and empire. "Triumphs of Fertility" treats Chinese and Egyptian alongside one another, as stable "vehicles of single cultural traditions of immense prestige" (this works somewhat awkwardly, to my mind, pushing Ostler to consider Chinese a single, once united language). And there are chapters on Sanskrit ("Charming Like a Creeper"), Greek ("Three Thousand Years of Solipsism") and Celt, Roman, German and Slav ("Contesting Europe").

"The role of politics in the early spread of Sanskrit across India remains obscure. Very likely, the process of military conquest and dynastic subordination in the third century BC spread not Sanskrit as such but the Magadhi Prakrit, which was the language of the Maurya court; Sanskrit would have taken up its position thereafter, establishing itself here, and no doubt elsewhere, as the common language for educated discourse of all those who spoke some Indian Prakrit in day-to-day life."

Two short chapters form a kind of caesura, looking at the first and second deaths of Latin: when it ceased to have a European monopoly on learned information and when it became "classicised" and no longer used for everyday communication.

In the modern period, "Usurpers of Greatness" covers Spanish in the New World, in a context created by languages such Quechua and Nahuatl. "In the Train of Empire" considers Portuguese and Dutch and French and Russian, providing contrasts for the history of English in "Microcosm of Distorting Mirror?". And Ostler finishes with a survey of "The Current Top Twenty" (in which Mandarin, Wu and Yue are now separate languages) and, in "Looking Ahead", a summary of past and present and potential future factors affecting the spread of languages. (Other languages also make shorter appearances in all of this: Persian, Malay, German, Japanese, Turkic languages, and many others.)

"The fundamental reason for the curious absence of the Dutch language is the pragmatism of its speakers in the Indies. They were there, after all, with two motives: primarily to make money, and secondarily — a long way second — to spread Protestant Christianity in their own dear Calvinist form. In the event, both motives called for the use of a foreign contact language, rather than their own mother tongue. For trade, in the first instance, there was evidently a need to use whatever language came to hand; and it turned out there was already a language that the trading community of the East Indies had had in common for at least two centuries, and perhaps much longer."

Empires of the Word has endnotes, bibliography and index: it is too scattered to use as a reference, but there's a lot that one might want to follow up. It does an excellent job setting details in their broader perspective, and made me rethink both specific aspects of the history of individual languages and the broader relationship between languages and human history. And it is simply a lot of fun.

October 2022

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%T Empires of the Word
%S A Language History of the World
%A Ostler, Nicholas
%I Harper
%D 2005
%O paperback, notes, bibliography, index
%G ISBN-13 9780007118717
%P 615pp