Empires of the Word – Review

Nicholas Ostler. Empires of the Word. New York: Harper, 2010. E-book.

Empires of the Word is a social and political history of languages. By political, I do not mean the political use and misuse of language as we read in George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.” I mean the socially and politically most significant languages in the world.

Arguably the longest-lasting language may be Aramaic. It began in the Near East and became the language of Syria and Babylon and a kind of lingua franca throughout southwest Asia and to some degree, even Egypt. It is still used as the liturgical language and home language in some Chaldean churches. Ostler believes the only reason that it faded was that it was similar enough to other languages like Hebrew and Arabic that when the Moslem conquest took place in the Middle Ages, it was not a strain to switch from Aramaic to Arabic.

Another Semitic language ranged over the Mediterranean, namely Phoenician. However, people never picked it up except perhaps for trade. Other language groups, notably the Greeks adapted Phoenician alphabetic writing for their own language as did Aramaic, apparently. (Ostler suggests Hebrew also, but the Phoenicians may have picked up their alphabet from ancient Israel. The oldest known alphabetic writing is from an Egyptian turquoise mine written by Hebrew slaves. That significantly predates any known Phoenician writing, though that fact alone is not proof, it is highly suggestive,)

Empires of the Word
notes that the two longest-lasting widely spoken languages both have written pictographic languages rather than alphabetic ones. Both began along rich river valleys somewhat protected by outsiders. When outsiders were successful in either immigrating or conquering, they inevitably took up the local language. These two languages are Egyptian and Chinese. Although the Moslem conquest eventually put an end to Egyptian, the language is still used in the Coptic churches. (If you know anything about the Roman alphabet, you may recognize that Egypt and Copt have the same root.) True, both languages changed over the centuries, but they still remained recognizable as Chinese and Egyptian.

Greek has had an influence well beyond the borders of its homeland. We have both Greek traders and settlers who sailed all over the Black Sea and Mediterranean. Then in the fourth century B.C. there was Alexander who Hellenized much of the known world. By the time of the New Testament, Greek was the lingua franca from India to Spain. It continued as the language of the Eastern Roman Empire from the Caesars until the fall of Byzantium. By then it had influenced Latin and most Slavic languages. Both the Roman and Cyrillic alphabets are variations of the Greek one.

Another empire of the word was the Roman Empire. Languages from Romania to Portugal are variations of Latin today. Ostler tells why the Latin-rooted languages became the standard even in most places where the Germanic tribes later conquered. Indeed, about the only place that Germanic tribes conquered where their language was maintained was the British Isles. The conquest of the Celtic tribes there was sufficient to mean that in most places English became the main tongue.

Ostler, of course, looks at the influence of both Spanish and English in their respective overseas empires. He notes the interesting action-reaction among Spanish settlers and missionaries in relation to the native languages, many of which have disappeared, some of which have survived (most notably in Paraguay). However, just as it is most helpful to know English in the United States, it is usually a sign of upward mobility to know Spanish in most of Latin America and Portuguese in Brazil. Ostler details how these languages fared. He also takes some time discussing the influence of French

In many places English is the second language. Sometimes it is a kind of neutral language that does not have local tribal or regional associations. This is the case in India and some other former British colonies in Africa and Asia. While Dutch was widely spoken in ports throughout South Asia, it never became a national lingua franca mostly because the Dutch themselves helped created Indonesian as a kind of Malay lingua franca through the Dutch Indies.

Ostler notes that there are about six thousand languages spoke in the world today, and half of them have fewer than 5,000 speakers. Nearly a thousand have under a dozen speakers. (A piece of film trivia: The novel Dances with Wolves was set among the Comanches, but when the producers wanted to have a Plains Indian tribe speak their native language on film, they had to go with Sioux speakers since the few Comanche native speakers were all elderly.)

There are also detailed chapters on the status of Russian, before and after the Soviet Union.

Not only was Sanskrit the root language of many South Asian languages, but its alphabet was often adapted for other Asian languages the same way the Phoenician alphabet was adapted for Greek and Latin.

While English is widely spoken and is already a kind of lingua franca, Ostler is unsure if it will maintain its position. While many modern Muslims are learning Arabic, the classical Arabic of the Koran is very different from the numerous dialects of Arabic spoken today. We still have various Empires of the Word around the world.

This book has scope. It was a labor of love that must have taken years. The closest thing this reviewer has read was something by Morris Swadesh years ago. Swadesh was trying to see the interconnectedness of various languages. Ostler is showing the influences and scope of discrete languages. In its own way, Empires of the Word helps us see the big picture.

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