Empires of the Word or Empire of Words? – A Review of Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World

Khmer Inscription in Banteay Srei (Angkor Wat) The Khmer language is heavily influenced by Sanskrit

Khmer Inscription in Banteay Srei (Angkor Wat)
The Khmer language is heavily influenced by Sanskrit

Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World , written by Nicholas Ostler, is an immensely learned book with an ambitious project: to recount world history from the births and demises of languages. From the cuneiforms engraved on the baked clay in 3000 BC  to the gloablisation of English in the twenty-first century, Ostler narrated this 5000 years of history from the perspective of languages – an approach, in his terminology, called ‘language dynamics’.

The narrative follows roughly the chronological line. We first saw the appearance of the earliest written records in Ur, and then how Akkadian, a very ancient Semitic language, rose as the first lingua franca of the ancient world. With the fall of the Babylonian Empire, Akkadian’s seemingly ever-lasting prominence finally gave way to Aramaic – another Semitic language that is spoken by Jesus and his disciples. The Middle East was then shaken by a new superstar: Arabic which unabashedly spread the language with deadly sword and fervent faith.

Interestingly, Ostler compared the Ancient Egyptian with Chinese. Superficially, this is odds as the former almost falls into total oblivion and is used only for strictly liturgical purposes in the Coptic branch of Christianity while the latter is spoken by more than one billion people. Yet a close comparative historical and linguistic study revealed how political unity, environmental factors and cultural self-confidence contrived to allow their obstinate survivals throughout the ages.

Ostler analyzed the linguistic features of Sanskrit, described by William Jone as ‘more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either’. India, as it is known today, had never spread the language by military forces but by reason of Sanskrit’s charming cultural force, she has succeeded to spread as far as to Japan (whose alphabet order, by the way, has been influenced by Sanskrit).

Greek‘s self-confidence and strong public spirit ensured her survival even after the Romans destroyed their political existences. Although Romans destroyed the Greek land, Greek had conquered the Roman hearts and minds. Nevertheless, her self-confidence turned into arrogance and hence after the fall of the Byzantine Empire, Greek drastically retreated to where she was originally spoken: Greece.

The fall of the Roman Empire also disintegrated Latin, as a spoken language, into different Romance languages: Italian, French and Spanish. Unlike the previous spread of languages of land routes, the emergence of the modern age witnessed the spread of languages by sea navigations. Ostler, therefore, recounted the avoidable dominance of Spanish in South America, the failures of the strongly pragmatic Portuguese and Dutch in spreading their languages, the sporadic successes of French and the ineffective and brutal strategy of Russian.

Among the European languages, English is the winner of all, at least for now. English has the good fortune of being first spread by the global British Empire and then being able to maintain her dominance through the most powerful nation in the world, the United States of America. As Ostler observed, in the history of languages, there is never a permanent lingua franca. In the future, English is destined to fall.

In a nutshell, this is an outline of Ostler’s huge narrative, spanning more than 600 pages. In his explanations, there is no single factor. The successes and failures of every languages depend on the totality of the circumstances. Most interestingly, economic dominance and military forces are merely relevant and not determinative factors. The Goths dismembered the Roman Empire, but they still spoke the vernacular forms of Latin. Portuguese and Dutch were successful merchants, but they were more than happy to speak the local lingua franca. Population, environment, culture, state policy, chance, and even linguistic structures must be all taken into account.

Under this multi-factors explanation, the level of details is astounding. A reader not well-acquainted with world history will struggle to handle the complex matrix of facts. Without a general understanding of world history and geography, it will be difficult to appreciate the significance of the survival or disappearance of a language when the political entities behind them still exists or had been long dissolved.

I can see that Ostler tried hard to avoid the Euro-centric bias as he compared between Egyptian and Chinese, explored Sanskrit and even inserted an interesting chapter on the Aztec and Incan languages. However the fact remains that half of the narrative focused on European languages, with English occupying the bulk of the last portion. It is a little disappointing to see that African languages virtually receive  no attention. Furthermore if Ostler predicted that Chinese and Arabic would become more influential in the future, shouldn’t they also receive a little more coverage?

Nevertheless these criticisms should not tarnish Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World as a grand narrative of world history from the perspective of languages. What Ostler has painted is not only a history of rises and declines of empires of words but a history of an ever-lasting empire of the different words and languages that will exist as long as humans still strive.

Extended Reading: Speaking of Tongues (Review), Take my word for it (Review)  and Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin (also by Nicholas Ostler)

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