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Sociological examination of language history. Well written. Kindle version (at least) lacks maps and figures
on October 11, 2017
I would give this book 4 stars, it was a good read. But I had something of an issue with the production of the KINDLE version of the book. I'll get to that at the end of the review.
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.