Empires of the Word

Closing out 2011, I just finished an incredible book – Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World by Nicholas Ostler. Just to give you a taste of his fine writing …

“But despite the myth of the Tower of Babel, and its vulgar interpretation as a cautionary tale, language diversity is not a liability for the human race. Most people in the world are multilingual, and everyone could be … Different languages protect and nourish the growth of different cultures, where different pathways of human knowledge can be discovered. They certainly make life richer for those who know more than one of them.” (pg. 558)

Ostler surveys the varied histories of the major languages of the world and how they developed within and between societies.  He counters the argument that language spreads through power or economic necessity only, but instead through “the creation of a larger human community.” In incredible detail he describes the historical developments within a dozen or so language communities, from Sumerian, Akkadian, Arabic, Chinese (the languages that spread by land) to Spanish, Portuguese, and English (the languages that spread by sea).

He closes with a discussion of the future for the top modern languages, especially English. While he avoids prognosticating any bright or bleak futures for our current lingua franca, he argues that the evidence is not solely in favor of English’s continued dominance.  After reading 400 or so pages detailing the histories of languages that once had been the ‘global’ powerhouses of their times, you would probably be inclined to nod your head at Oslter’s statement “For languages, as for any human institution, when you are on top, sooner or later there is only one way to go.”

I started reading this book because of my past interest in language, identity construction, and the former Yugoslavia. Benedict Anderson fans will definitely find a kindred spirit in Ostler. But it is worth reading for anyone interested in the role of language, communication and literacy in societies (i.e., librarians!). He addresses briefly the impact of modern media on English, but as he is taking a broader historical view it isn’t the real purpose of the book.

That broader historical view of language is exactly what I like about the book. He isn’t looking at languages as rigid creations that emerge intact and never evolve. This is what I hate about lists like a post that showed up on Facebook recently, 10 words you mispronounce that make people think you’re an idiot. Granted Bush’s pronunciation of the word nuclear made him sound a wee bit ‘cuntry’, but some of these words have acceptable alternate pronunciations (sherbet and often) based on their evolution in our society. While I understand the drive to promote a more perfect English, especially in written form, at the same time I can’t sympathize with anyone who ignores the dynamic and evolving nature of any language (Never mind the post’s latent point that people who speak with regional accents, primarily rural, are idiotic). But I digress.

Through this fabulous work, Ostler describes the ebbs and flows, the evolutions, and sometimes deaths of our many languages. It is a long book, but well worth the trouble.