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Nicholas Ostler’s Empires of the Word is the first history of the world’s great tongues, gloriously celebrating the wonder of words that binds communities together. Empires of the Word, by Nicholas Ostler. Language is mightier than the sword. Michael Church; Wednesday 6 April 0 comments. Nicholas Ostler’s Empires of the Word is the first history of the world’s great tongues, gloriously celebrating the wonder of words that binds.

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This book has achieved the somewhat dubious accomplishment of being both very interesting and rather dry.

Wow, this book covers a lot of ground and a lot of history. But when you’re nearing the end of a book encompassing several millennia of nocholas involving countless nations roaming the world and building themselves global empires, suddenly, this one guy’s similar ambitions don’t seem quite so unusual. The classic mode of language growth in the new European era was by means of military conquest: Jan 25, Michael Cayley rated it it was amazing Shelves: HarperCollins- Historical linguistics – pages.

Review: Empires of the Word by Nicholas Ostler | Books | The Guardian

View all 6 comments. Oh dear–I had such high hopes–and I really do love the occasional academic treatise. They were similar in that barbarian was essentially used to describe those not of the civilized center; different in that the Greek version ths waste much time categorizing barbarian qua If you read only one book on diachronic sociolinguistics, make it this one. They encountered 80 languages e. What empkres the forces that might weaken the current hegemony of English around the world?

A language does not grow through the assertion of power, but through the creation of a larger human community. The book concentrates on those languages that have been – in some form or another – globally influential: There was a problem adding your niholas address.

Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World

Then Ostler tells us about the spread of Sanskrit through South-East Asia, which was not emppires military origin but rather came about due to a combination of trade, piratical raids and a desire to share a religious faith—the architecture of Shwe Dagon in Burma, Borobodur in Java and Angkor Wat in Cambodia bears witness wotd the Indian genius; and through Central and eastern Asia in its Pali variant driven by the egalitarian Buddhism—a curious effect is to be found in the Japanese syllabaries which follow the phonetically-inspired order of the letters in Indian alphabets.


ByHindi-Urdu, Spanish and Arabic should rival it native speakers.

Ostler’s explanation for its longevity is interesting: Half a dozen spiritual revelations have offered themselves as universal truths in the past years, and most of them are still in contention. Turkic and Persian acted as auxiliary languages of Islamic civilization. While successful now through its prestige in the former British Empire and its strong linkage with science and technology, it is increasingly becoming primarily a second language while first-language speakers gradually become less of a majority in their own countries.

His book Ad Infinitum: Be the first to discover new talent! Elsewhere it simply replaced native languages as the natives were driven to or near to extinction. A recurring theme is the idea of language prestige, a quality which may induce people to adopt a spoken language, and later to preserve it as a medium of learning in reverence for its canon of literature, and the social status conferred on those educated in it.

Will English be displaced in world terms by a language such as Mandarin Chinese, which has been a great regional player since well before English emerged as an offshoot of Anglo-Saxon, French and Norse? No trivia or quizzes yet. The issues and concerns and discoveries here merit far wider attention than this sometimes turgid text will attract.

Throughout the book Ostler is at pains to correct the misconception that empire-building has carried the burden of language spread. Most of the modern languages of northern and central India are descendants of it as developed versions of its Prakrits colloquial dialects. But English and other European languages are no longer viewed as symbols of colonial domination, and instead are seen as crucial for success in business –which could boost longevity.

His book rests on a foundation of scholarship and erudition so broad and deep that it elicits gasps of admiration. Empires of the Word: An ideographic system can offer nearly insurmountable obstacles to learning and yet, like Chinese, its very abstraction from the phonetic nature of the language can enable it to serve and persist as the medium of transmission for mutually unintelligible dialects. And then there is Chinese. This is an absolutely fascinating, dreadfully boring book.

View all 5 comments. And, I was carried away by his thesis that the rate of language adoption is strongly influenced by the degree of similarity in structure between the learner’s language and the new language, but on reflection afterward the evidence for it is pretty slim.


The potential to overrun others is not the benison to a language that one might think, though. Hell, I’m not sure I’m that interested in the subject matter, and I happily read a whole book about the alphabet.

Akkadian and Sumerian, the earliest scripts spoken in Babylon and the fertile Crescent, were Semitic languages written in a script called cuneiform, which was pressed into clay tablets. Dictionaries, Issue 26 Snippet view – Chinese is often seen as fmpires separate branch of the Sino-Tibetan family, being a tone language made up of monosyllabic words having no inflections —though these characteristics are shared by unralated languages like Thai.

I personally find language history and usage fascinating nerd alertso maybe not everyone will find this book as cool as I did, but this was one of those books where I learned something new on basically every page and enjoyed doing it.

Though the book is more expository than provocative, Ostler is not frightened by new theories. One of the ways of making history books interesting is usually to make them personal, by telling of specific people and their specific experiences, and that’s just not possible with a book like this, the same way it is with a book with a narrowe This book has achieved the somewhat dubious accomplishment of being both very interesting and rather dry.

Of course, English is a far more global language – though primarily as a second language – than Chinese, the vast majority of whose speakers live in China. These languages have built empires. A scholar with a working knowledge of twenty-six languages, Nicholas Ostler has degrees from Oxford University in Greek, Latin, philosophy, and economics, and a Ph.

If you, like me, are interested in linguistics and big-picture world history, this is the book. To ask other readers questions about Empires of the Wordplease sign up. One of the few instances of a Greek’s attention to barbarian matters! It is a little disappointing to see that African languages virtually receive no attention. On page 64, he says: Ostler divides language spread into two periods, before and after This book also tells about the first cracks in the language barrier: In the Train of Empire: