Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World
By: Nicholas Ostler
Format/Source: eBook; my purchase
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 and makes possible both the living of a common history and the telling of it. From the uncanny resilience of Chinese through twenty centuries of invasions to the engaging self-regard of Greek and to the struggles that gave birth to the languages of modern Europe, these epic achievements and more are brilliantly explored, as are the fascinating failures of once “universal” languages. A splendid, authoritative, and remarkable work, it demonstrates how the language history of the world eloquently reveals the real character of our planet’s diverse peoples and prepares us for a linguistic future full of surprises.
I think I first came across this book…on The Economist as a book review. This was years ago. I was intrigued by the book because while language isn’t my strong suit per se, language’s importance in history and culture and just the overall development and progression over the centuries greatly interested me (perhaps the former moreso as that was the focus of my grad work, and something I realised was very important when studying national identity politics and culture). Fast forward to last year and I finally got my hands on the book 😀
My initial impression of the book was just the amount of material is covered. It’s quite a massive undertaking his took, following the development of the major languages in the world throughout history, tracing its development from early times, its spread, and what caused its survival and/or extinction. On top of it he follows them fairly chronological via the way of world history (as it is currently taught in school). Is it euro-centric? Yeah, sure, but considering how big an impact the colonial period was in spreading many of the European languages was to other parts of the world, I can see why so much attention was placed there. However that’s not to say that other languages were ignored; the author does try to incorporate as much of the regional languages into the discussion and their reaction to the coming of the Portuguese, the Spanish, and the English. Other areas of the world were also covered, such as China and India, both in the context of their own histories before and after contact with other powers.
Does it make for a dense read? Oh yeah, definitely this is not a concise essay about the impact of languages on society and history and their survival in the future. Rather, it is a history textbook in its own right. I learned a lot from this book, but at the same time as someone who is currently juggling x number of things on the go, it’s not easy for me to go back and forth with this book, especially as a way to unwind. Nonetheless it’s a fascinating book that would interesting language enthusiasts and history readers.