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Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World [Hardcover]

by Nicholas Ostler
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (67 customer reviews)

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Book Description

June 28, 2005 0066210860 978-0066210865 First Edition

The story of the world in the last five thousand years is above all the story of its languages. Some shared language is what binds any community together and makes possible both the living of a common history and the telling of it.

Yet the history of the world's great languages has been very little told. Empires of the Word, by the wide-ranging linguist Nicholas Ostler, is the first to bring together the tales in all their glorious variety: the amazing innovations in education, culture, and diplomacy devised by speakers of Sumerian and its successors in the Middle East, right up to the Arabic of the present day; the uncanny resilience of Chinese through twenty centuries of invasions; the charmed progress of Sanskrit from north India to Java and Japan; the engaging self-regard of Greek; the struggles that gave birth to the languages of modern Europe; and the global spread of English.

Besides these epic ahievements, language failures are equally fascinating: Why did German get left behind? Why did Egyptian, which had survived foreign takeovers for three millennia, succumb to Mohammed's Arabic? Why is Dutch unknown in modern Indonesia, though the Netherlands had ruled the East Indies for as long as the British ruled India?

As this book splendidly and authoritatively reveals, the language history of the world shows eloquently the real character of peoples; and, for all the recent tehnical mastery of English, nothing guarantees our language's long-term preeminence. The language future, like the language past, will be full of surprises.

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

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.

From Booklist

*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

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 640 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; First Edition edition (June 28, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0066210860
  • ISBN-13: 978-0066210865
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.4 x 1.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (67 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #855,373 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
198 of 205 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars History speaks! August 1, 2005
This impressive work is a study of language dynamics over five millennia. Ostler deals with the birth, rise and decline of those languages that spread most widely through history, and the factors that played a part, like trade, conquest and culture. Of course the book is also by definition a history of civilization. The narrative begins in Sumeria and ends with English as the most important international language of today. The author rightly observes that the study of language history and historical linguistics will be mutually rewarding. He also attempts to indirectly capture the inward history of languages & the subtle mindsets that characterize individual ones, especially as regards the abandonment of mother tongues for new languages.

Part Two: Languages by Land, looks at the Middle & Far East: Sumerian, Akkadian, Phoenician, Aramaic, Arabic, Turkish & Persian, Egyptian & Chinese whilst chapters 5 & 6 considers Sanskrit & Greek respectively. The last two chapters deal with Celtic, Latin, German & Slavic. Part Three: Languages by Sea, explores the spread of Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French, and the remarkable career of English. Part Four deals with the current Top 20 languages and reflects on the meaning and implications of the global survey.

The life-spans of languages differ greatly; if one compares Latin with Greek, for instance, Greek continued to thrive under Roman hegemony alongside Latin and eventually supplanted Latin again in the Byzantine Empire.
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95 of 100 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars History and languages July 3, 2005
This book tells the history of the world through the rise and decline of languages. Nicholas Ostler has confined himself to languages that have been written down and which have spread geographically. They include Sumerian, Akkadian, Egyptian, Chinese, Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, and the main European languages.

Of the approximately 7,000 language communities in the world today, more than half have fewer than 5,000 speakers, and 1,000 fewer than a dozen: many will be extinct within a generation. At the top of the 20 global languages is Mandarin Chinese, which has 1.052 billion speakers, more than twice as many as the next highest, English, with 508 million. Third is Hindi with 487 million and fourth Spanish, with 417 million. How have these linguistic communities been created? Why have some flourished while others languished?

From the author's picture, it is clear that there is no single model. The most important factors in the spread of languages have generally been conquest, migration, economic might and religion. But to succeed, what a language needs above all is prestige, or the ability to attract speakers.

Besides looking back to the origins of the written word, Ostler speculates about the future. In 50 years, he argues, Chinese will probably still be the most widely spoken language, while English, at least as a native language, might have stagnated.

Ostler's writing is easily readible and he keeps things going with plenty of anecdotes and interesting facts. So I daresay that this is a book that can be savoured by the professional historian and educated layperson alike. Besides, the book is not a difficult read (content: 5 starts; pleasure: 4 to 5).
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22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars who wrote what when & where... & why? July 25, 2005
Rebeccasreads highly recommends EMPIRES OF THE WORD as a dense, fascinating, informative & accessible read.

At 640 pages with Notes, Bibliography & Index, it will certainly get the world of words talking, in all their various tongues.

What were the origins of language, & where & when did they start?

Why did Latin die when the Roman Empire collapsed & Greek survive?

Outside of the Middle East why is Arabic primarily the language of liturgy?

How did Chinese thrive even after millenia of conquests from outsiders?

How far from home did Sanskrit roam?

What languages did the Spanish conquistadors kill off?

How did European languages stay alive despite constant oppression?

What is the real career of English?

What are the Current Top Twenty languages of the world today, & is their future secured?

EMPIRES OF THE WORD is the way I love to learn history, telling the stories of our mother tongues. Sure there are armies marching across the globe bringing with them, besides war & pestilence, commerce, language & interpreters. There are explorers sailing the seven seas making landfall in strange places among stranger peoples, taking home unknown commodities & new words for them. There were also merchants who travelled overland, exchanging goods, customs & translations. All took their languages with them, becoming multi-lingual & creating new ones with which to barter & carry on diplomacy.

Just one question: were the Fertile Crescent writers predominantly left-handed, & when & where did we start writing left to right?

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Most Recent Customer Reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars Good book, but lousy editing and proofreading
I read this book as an E-book and was extremely annoyed by links that did not work, phonetic alphabet that was unreadable, and misprints. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Kirsten Refsing
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting History
A fascinating read, but a bit of a hard slog at times. Very interesting, I believe, for anyone interested in the language relationship to world history.
Published 3 months ago by Robert Wright
4.0 out of 5 stars Enlightening and Enjoyable
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... Read more
Published 4 months ago by Anne Mills
5.0 out of 5 stars A tour de force for those who are interested in language and culture
As the title suggests, it is a history of the world examined through the lens of language and languages. Read more
Published 4 months ago by Maria Lydia Spinelli
1.0 out of 5 stars Copy I received was clearly a photocopied ripoff of the original (and...
this is intended not as a critique of the writing itself (which is quite interesting) but the quality of the version I received, which had very clearly been photocopied or scanned... Read more
Published 7 months ago by Mary Ginoza
4.0 out of 5 stars Good
It came in time and it was new . Great buy and cheaper too. The book is really good and I like it
Published 7 months ago by doorly4321
3.0 out of 5 stars Not an easy read
The author is clearly qualified to write on this subject, but his style of writing and sentence structure are not for anyone who is looking for a little bit of light reading. Read more
Published 7 months ago by Amazon Customer
2.0 out of 5 stars Mishmash hodegepodge of academic facts and non-facts
And I quote from page 515 in the book..."Non-native speakers will outnumber native speakers within the next 50 years, if they don't do so already".... Read more
Published 7 months ago by Not My Name™
1.0 out of 5 stars Badly Written on Several Levels
Nicholas Ostler plainly knows a lot about languages. Unfortunately he is not very good at writing a book. Read more
Published 9 months ago by B. J. O'Brien
3.0 out of 5 stars a interesting but a little distracted(?) and thick book
I'm a novice at world history. Although this book encourage me to read more history books, it's difficult for me to understand and make this book's knowledge to my own completely. Read more
Published 10 months ago by Trippedonearth
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