This book tells the story through the rise and decline of languages. It is a compelling read, one of the most interesting books I have read in a long while. 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. While it is a history of languages, it is at the same time a history of the cultures and civilisations from which they sprang.
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In books of such scope, one is always wary that the author cheats a little here, a little there, making small mistakes where his competence might fail and in a work covering the complete history of language spread of the whole human race, such instances are inevitable, even if the author possesses a working knowledge of 26 languages, as the back cover rather preposterously claims. This said, I could not catch Dr. Ostler by the hand in those instances where I This is a learned book.
Not in anything major enough, anyway. Part II: Languages by Land 3. Sumerian as the first classical language i. Akkadian and its model of literacy. Aramaic: Interlingua of western Asia.
Turkic and Persian, outriders of Islam. Triumphs of Fertility: Egyptian and Chinese. Three waves of Greek spreading: colonization, war Hellenistic , culture Roman. Decline and reversal. The curious tenacity of Latin in the West and its relative failure in the East. The First Death of Latin: the transition from Latin to vernaculars. This is about post-Columbian exploration of the new worlds in Asia and America.
The Second Death of Latin. Usurpers of Greatness: Spanish in the New World. Here, it was a surprise for me to read to what extent the indigenous languages of especially South America were used, even by the Spanish, as linguas francas of the New World; the complete reliance on Spanish came only relatively late; Ostler traces the spread of Nahuatl, Quechua, Chibcha, Guarani, Mapudungun lenguas generales.
Russian managed to stamp out the indigenous languages of Asian Russia behind the Urals, Siberia, etc. Microcosm or Distorting Mirror? The Career of English. Changing perspective: English in India an experiment rooted very much in elitism and education; a successful one, if the picture painted by "Slumdog Millionaire" is anywhere near the truth. The world taken by storm. Here, Ostler reviews The Current Top Twenty and gives some predictions about their future distribution. His outlook for Russian and other European languages is rather grim he even foresees a future bilingualism in UK, English plus one of the Asian languages ; he advises English speakers not to become dizzy with success, which can be easily overturned; and even the Chinese with its billion speakers may face a decline.
But a stunning achievement nonetheless.
Published on Sun 13 Mar He identifies three major paths to success: breed your way to majority status like Chinese , spread by conquest like Arabic or give rise to a popular religion like Sanskrit. But there is also another aspect contributing to the long-term survival of a language, which is to become classical. A class of bureaucrats with the power to defend its monopoly can keep a language going for centuries, as can a set of scriptures, while conquerors come and go. Whether incomers imposed their language or adopted that of their subjects usually relates to whether they wanted business - and taxpaying - to go on as before or whether they arrived equipped with pen-pushers of their own. Most were from tribes which had served Rome for generations and they arrived, in the main, with some official sanction and equipped with the functional Latin which they had learned as mercenaries.
Speaking of tongues
Take my word for it
Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World