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. Nicholas Ostler is a British scholar and author. Ostler studied at Balliol College, Oxford, where His book Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World documents the spread of language throughout recorded human history. Yet the history of the world’s great languages has been very little told. Empires of the Word, by the wide-ranging linguist Nicholas Ostler, is the.

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Maybe it’s simply a lack of written material extant from that period, meaning that no real analysis is possible, but he specifically stated that about other languages, such as many of the pre-European American and Australian languages, but said nothing like that that I recall about the Germanic and Slavic languages.

Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World

A final section looks at factors which may affect the relative importance of different languages in coming decades. Empires of the Word: 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. Somewhat as a side effect, it affords language enthusiasts an unconventional and highly enjoyable approach to the most rem [Except for the first and last paragraphs, this is more of a summary than a review: Nicholas Ostler does not adopt a narrowly linguistic approach – based on the structure of languages and their evolution – but instead looks at the history of languages, the reasons for their rise and, as a rule, also their fall.

Please provide an email address. Mar 16, Hadrian rated it really liked it Shelves: Codified 2, years ago and barely changed since, this was a language that took great pleasure in its own beauty, which was intimately bound up with an Indian worldview, but which was ultimately to ossify to such an extent that today, although still an official language of India, it is spoken by fewer thanpeople. He did discuss how they came from the north, and never really took hold, but he didn’t really discuss how they started in the north in the first place.

An alphabet can leap cultural boundaries and leave a language dying in its wake, taking on a life of its own.

Empires of the Wordby the wide-ranging linguist Nicholas Ostleris the first to bring together the tales in all their glorious variety: A Language History of the World documents the spread of language throughout recorded human history.

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I enjoyed a short tangent the book took into a comparison of Greek and Chinese conceptions of the ‘barbarian’. To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up. They began sugar plantations, bring in 3. This empiress, sturdy text rests on a foundation of scholarship and erudition so broad and deep that it will elicit gasps of admiration from professional linguists and assorted logophiles, though its very complexity and comprehensiveness may overwhelm general readers.

In the Train of Empire: This just wasn’t compelling, despite in the abstract sounding like a slam dunk for me.


Ostler claims that today’s mega-status of English to the extent when knowing the language is in itself a commodity is less due to America’s dominant position in the world than is usually thought, and most of the groundwork had been done by the British indeed, apart from the US, the largest English-language countries – India, Australia, NZ, South Africa – are still mostly within the British linguistic sphere.

I found it approachable and exhilarating and not in the least bit dry or politicised. Ostler has created a history of all of humanity, in so much as such a thing can be achieved in a single volume, on a basis unlike any other I have encountered. This is dense, but fascinating stuff. It’s an admirable goal, but I don’t think that it really worked as intended. Throughout the book Ostler is at pains to correct the misconception that empire-building has carried the burden of language spread.

A culture which can write can send orders for spices across oceans and orders to march across continents.

This just wasn’t compelling, despite in the abstract sounding like a slam dunk for me. The result was the replacement of Sanskrit by Persian as the language of administration, ironically brought about by a horse-borne army.

A major turning point comes around AD I have a Greek friend who calls me a barbarian. Provides a clear picture why a language becomes widely used. Why did German get left behind?

Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World by Nicholas Ostler

Afterthe major form of expansion was by sea. Ultimately, the book was fascinating, massive in scope, highly informative and well-researched, and a hell of a slog. By way sorld contrast, French, which until the early 20th century was, with English, the global language of choice, albeit with rather more prestige, now lingers in ninth place in the table, with a mere million speakers – little more than half the number of Bengali speakers, and just above Urdu. 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.


In Ostler’s terms, Singapore has retained English for reasons of unity and globality. Ostler closes the last chapter–and the interview at the back of the book– with a statement about the importance of preserving endangered languages both to respect the rights of their speakers and for science to get an idea of the range of different linguistic –and thought– patterns humans are capable of.

The Muslim invasions of the Indian subcontinent starting in Gazhni, Afghanistan in the 10th century and culminating in the Mughal empire after are also surveyed. This is why the same Chinese written system can serve equally well for the many different Chinese dialects sometimes described as languages and thereby provide a powerful source of unity for such a huge and wide-ranging population. He has some really nkcholas insights on all sorts of things, like why Germanic tribes managed to conquer half the Roman Empire but didn’t impose o languages anywhere whereas the Arab conquests only a few hundred years later led to permanent linguistic change across almost all of their territories, and his ending discussion of the evolution and future of English is probably worth the price of the book right there.

This is a great book. The advance of the Arabic language was not really ‘lightning fast’ to the West – Ostler says that Coptic was the main language in Upper Egypt as late as the 14th century, and Berber was the main mother tongue in the Maghrib even longer – and the urban centres that were Arabised first were the places where non-Afro-Asiatic thf would have been strongest.

This is a book I will come back to again and again. Ostler’s ability to synthesize vast amounts of research is awe-inspiring, and his obvious love for certain languages he has a real crush on Sanskrit, in particular carries over to the subject material in ways that only the best authors manage. While classical Greek was picked up for study during the Rennaisance, it had lost its place as a lingua franca to Latin. For me, this was probably not a good book to choose as a summer read–it is very academic in tone and is definitely not light as summertime reading usually is.

Besides the obvious improvements in shipbuilding and nautical knowledge and equipment, the period of Languages by Sea starts with the consolidation of new elites whose languages English, Spanish, Russian, Portuguese, German, French and to a wmpires extent Dutch have some of the highest numbers of speakers in the world today.

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