Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World, by Nicholas Ostler (HarperCollins, 640 pp., $29.95)
Most of us have, at one time or another, puzzled over such historical-linguistic conundrums as: Why did only Britain, of all the Roman provinces overrun by Germans, end up speaking a Germanic language? Why did the Portuguese language “take” in Brazil, but not in Africa, while Dutch “took” in Africa but not in Indonesia? If the Phoenicians were so important in Mediterranean history, how is it that they left not a single work of literature behind? Since we know of no nation named Aramaia, whence came Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus of Nazareth? What actually happened to Sumerian? Or Mongolian, the language of a vast medieval empire?
Plainly, what we have been needing is an account of world history written from the linguistic point of view. Well, here it is. Nicholas Ostler is a professional linguist and currently chairman of the Foundation for Endangered Languages. His loving fascination with languages is plain on every page of Empires of the Word, and in the many careful transcriptions — each with a brief pronunciation guide and a translation — of passages from Nahuatl, Chinese, Akkadian, and a host of other tongues. Ostler actually has a feel for languages that, he has convinced me, goes into something beyond the merely subjective. He speaks of “some of the distinctive traits of the various traditions: Arabic’s austere grandeur and egalitarianism; Chinese and Egyptian’s unshakeable self-regard; Sanskrit’s luxuriating classifications and hierarchies; Greek’s self-confident innovation leading to self-obsession and pedantry; Latin’s civic sense; Spanish rigidity, cupidity, and fidelity; French admiration for rationality; and English admiration for business acumen.”
The story he tells — the story of the languages of human civilization — is illustrated with dozens of maps, as a book of this sort ought to be, as well as a scattering of drawings and photographs. After a brief introductory section, the narrative divides into three parts. The first describes the spread of languages, mainly by land, from the remotest past up to the Middle Ages. The second covers the last half-millennium, when European languages planted themselves all over the world, carried mainly by sea (Russian being the chief exception here). In a short final section, Ostler surveys the current language map, and offers some speculations about the future.
The first section is the longest and contains much material likely to be unfamiliar to the average reader. It begins with the story of the Semitic languages, from Akkadian through Aramaic and Phoenician to Hebrew and Arabic. The main points of interest here are the odd lingering prestige of Sumerian long after Sumer as a political force had ceased to exist; the replacement of Akkadian, a firmly established bureaucratic-imperial language, by Aramaic, a nomad dialect from the desert fringes; and the dramatically different fortunes of sister-languages Phoenician and Hebrew. From the second of those points, Ostler extracts the surprising but true principle that “the life and death of languages are in principle detached from the political fortunes of their associated states.” He confronts, and refutes, the theory that Aramaic won out over Akkadian because of its superior, alphabetic, writing system, assigning the true cause to Assyrian population policy.
We then get an illuminating comparative study of two great introverted imperial systems, Egypt and China, and their languages, with the startling conclusion — the supporting argument is too complex to summarize — that “the long-term future of the Chinese language may be hanging in the balance.” On to Sanskrit, for which the author nurses a particular affection, and which he describes as “eminently learnable,” though this is not the impression one gets from glimpses of the grammar. (For example, the Sanskrit verb has a benedictive mood, used only when blessing.) Greek, says Ostler, is “an instructive example of what can happen to a prestige language when its community ceases to innovate, and the rest of the world catches up.” Celts, Romans, Germans, and Slavs in turn then march across the historico-linguistic stage, before the English, French, Dutch, and Spanish embark in leaky wooden carracks to spread their languages to the remotest regions of the earth.
The author is naturally tempted to try to extract from all this history some general principles about the spread of languages. This proves difficult, though, beyond a few truisms, such as that a language genealogically related to one’s own is much easier to pick up. “Despite 1,200 years of practice, the phonetic distinctions in Arabic which Westerners find hard to master . . . are difficult for Persian speakers too.”
Languages enlarge their numbers of speakers in various ways: through trade, conquest, migration, imperial consolidation, or religious proselytizing. The latter two — Spanish in the Americas and Sanskrit in Southeast Asia are instances — seem to be the most efficacious. Trade is an especially poor bet, as the examples of Phoenician, Sogdian (on the Silk Route), and Arabic (in the Indian Ocean) illustrate. Ostler comes to one of his few definitive conclusions on this point: “No community famous for specialization in trade has passed its language on permanently as a vernacular, or even as a lingua franca, to its customers.” The customer, you see, is always right, and the customer’s language is therefore to be preferred.
In general, though, any attempt to lay down rules here is at once swamped by counterexamples. Surveying the languages currently dominant in the world, Ostler says: “Grossly, then, one could claim that, in the political economy of languages, it pays to be the dialect of a city that becomes a national capital; it pays to be in a tropical plain, especially if it grows rice; and above all it pays to be in East or South Asia. But all these criteria have exceptions: indeed, English started out with none of these advantages.”
It is likewise difficult to see into the linguistic future with any clarity. Of a few cases, we can entertain some confidence: Russian will decline, Japanese hold its own. All else is speculation. Will the different varieties of English diverge, as post-Imperial Latin split up into the Romance languages? (Some Jamaicans hired to work on my house last year conversed with me in flawless Queen’s English, but with each other in impenetrable island patois.) Conversely, will the Turkic languages of Central Asia merge, with Anatolian Turkish, into a single language? Will Chinese attain major international status at last? What will be the influence of the Internet? Of demography? Of migration? Of Islam? The variables are so many, and the historical precedents so contradictory, one can do little more than pose the questions. This Ostler does, with all the clarity and humility of true scholarship. A marvelous book, learned and instructive.