- Hardcover: 640 pages
- Language: German
- ISBN-10: 0066210860
- ASIN: B000JU7MS4
- Package Dimensions: 9 x 6.3 x 1.6 inches
- Shipping Weight: 2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 120 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #7,293,251 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World (German)
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The ebook formatting, on the other hand, leaves a lot to be desired.
1) Images (and there are hundreds of them, including many special characters) only appear in the "View on your Browser" environment or (presumably) on a direct-networked Kindle device. They do NOT appear on the Kindle for PC reader or, therefore (I believe) in side-loaded Kindles. (And if you convert and read the file on an ePub device, they don't appear there, either.) You can read the book without the images, but you are missing a lot of the helpful illustrations, and most of the unusually accented characters.
2) Page references all point to the print edition and (of course) have no relationship to whatever digital device you use, nor are they live links.
3) eBook pagination jumps all over the map. For example, on my device, crossing a chapter boundary moved me from p. 662 (of 696) to p. 140.
In his introduction Nicholas Ostler says that his book is not a history of languages nor a comparative analysis of similarities and differences. But there is some of both in here. The focus, about which he says this is the first book, is a sociological examination of the regional (and eventually global) rise and fall of languages. His aim is understanding what factors, geographic, political, military, economic, and psychological, contribute (positively and negatively) to the history (rise, spread, maintenance, decline) of specific languages from antiquity to the present. Ostler goes back as far as the earliest writing. He covers the world from all of Far Eastern Asia (north and south), around to South Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and the Americas. With each group, he goes as far back as known writing allows and brings the languages forward to the present, mapping geopolitical events (world history) to their effect on the peoples of the regions (natives and interlopers) down to the present day.
This huge scope takes a lot of time. But the book is not as long as it appears as the text proper ends at the 76% point, the rest of it taken up by the end-notes which are copiously sprinkled (as links) through the text. This is nothing if not a scholarly work. One technical quibble, there are both "end notes" proper, and "end chapter notes" using different symbol sets (numbers for the end notes, '*', and other symbols for the chapter notes). But there are not enough symbols to cover the number of chapter notes and they must be repeated within a chapter. Moreover, while in most chapters, the chapter notes are properly linked in the text, in a few they are not.
In the end, Ostler is not able to cull the variety of language-impinging factors down to a few rules that predict what will happen to a given language. Given the geographic (world) and historical (7,000 years) scope of the work this is not surprising. No single language arc seems to have duplicated any other. No matter the various "similar factors", in each case there are also plenty of differences, and between the two lies an endless variation resulting in far more exceptions than examples of similar forces having similar effects. Nevertheless, the book does give one a sense of how the influences play out historically, the most important being the size of the language speaking population, the security of their regional political control, their geographic placement in the world, their placement in the history of technology. This was a long read to get to tentative and very generalized conclusions, but I think in this case there isn't much more that can be said. The book does a service by carefully evaluating the significance of the various factors impacting language evolution and geographic dispersion. I don't think Ostler has discovered anything new here, but he does well illustrate the impact of interaction between operative factors in broad historical periods.
I admire Ostler for taking on a really hard problem and making some sense of it, but the book's production (at least the Kindle version) was not up to the task. This is a subject that demands maps and figures. Strangely, the book refers to maps and figures only two or three times in the [long] body of the text. Worse, there weren't any maps or figures anywhere to be found in this Kindle version. Even the few he references, were just not there. Of course I cannot speak for their presence or absence in the hard copy versions, but I do not think there is any excuse for leaving them out of the electronic version. What is going on here? I do not know, but the lack of visual aids here takes a lot away from the value of the book.
For example, ever wondered why the Jewish people of 2000 years ago spoke Aramaic even though the religious literature was in Hebrew? The author attributes the triumph of a language used by nomadic groups over the market basket of Semitic languages to an internal political policy of the Assyrian empire requiring forced exile of large groups resulting in areas of no common language.
Most interesting from my perspective was the analysis of the predominance of English, Spanish and Portuguese in the New World. They are survived and flourished for different reasons. That Spanish is still not the dominant language in some countries brought to mind my experience in Bolivia where multiple translators were required to go from English-to-Spanish-to-Quechua and back because the majority of the country spoke Quechua!
Also of interest were reasons a language did not become dominant, such as German in Western Europe where it failed to dislodge derivatives of Latin.
One thing could have improved this book - illustrations. The author employs elaborate word pictures to describe precedents and antecedents of a language that were a little convoluted. A graph of each language family would have been most helpful.
Ostler takes a wide view: we move from India, to China, to Arabic speaking countries, to Europe and end on English, the current lingua franca.
Ostler’s book is fascinating, and VERY detailed, so it demands some patience on the part of readers. But readers will be rewarded for their effort with some firm analysis of the complexities of how languages live and die.
Ostler does not leave us with any hard and fast rule about why some languages spread and others do not. Often, language spread because of conquest, as Latin did; or through a combination of conquest (British English) and prestige (American English).
Language is as complex and as multivariate as we are; really, we should expect no less.