Empires of the Word
A Language History of the World
By Nicholas Ostler
(Harper, Hardcover, 9780066210865, 640pp.)
Publication Date: July 1, 2005
List Price: $29.95*
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The story of the world in the last five thousand years is above all the story of its languages. Some shared language is what binds any community together and makes possible both the living of a common history and the telling of it.
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 first to bring together the tales in all their glorious variety: the amazing innovations in education, culture, and diplomacy devised by speakers of Sumerian and its successors in the Middle East, right up to the Arabic of the present day; the uncanny resilience of Chinese through twenty centuries of invasions; the charmed progress of Sanskrit from north India to Java and Japan; the engaging self-regard of Greek; the struggles that gave birth to the languages of modern Europe; and the global spread of English.
Besides these epic ahievements, language failures are equally fascinating: Why did German get left behind? Why did Egyptian, which had survived foreign takeovers for three millennia, succumb to Mohammed's Arabic? Why is Dutch unknown in modern Indonesia, though the Netherlands had ruled the East Indies for as long as the British ruled India?
As this book splendidly and authoritatively reveals, the language history of the world shows eloquently the real character of peoples; and, for all the recent tehnical mastery of English, nothing guarantees our language's long-term preeminence. The language future, like the language past, will be full of surprises.
A scholar with a working knowledge of twenty-six languages, Nicholas Ostler has degrees from Oxford University in Greek, Latin, philosophy, and economics, and a Ph.D. in linguistics from MIT, where he studied under Noam Chomsky. He lives in Bath, England.
“[A] wide-ranging history of the world’s languages... [Ostler] brilliantly raises questions and supplies answers or theories.”
“Enlightening . . . Always challenging, always instructive--at times, even startling or revolutionary.”
“Delicious! Ostler’s book shows how certain lucky languages joined humankind in its spread across the world.”
“What an extraordinary odyssey the author of this superb work embarked upon.”
“Covers more rambunctious territory than any other single volume I’m aware of...A wonderful ear for the project’s poetry.”
-John Leonard, Harper's Magazine
“Revolutionary... Executed with a giddying depth of scholarship, yet the detail is never too thick to swamp the general reader.”
“True scholarship. A marvelous book, learned and instructive.”
“[A] monumental new book... Ostler furnishes many fresh insights, useful historical anecdotes and charming linguistic oddities.”
“A work of immense erudition.”
-Christian Science Monitor
“A story of dramatic reversals and puzzling paradoxes. A rich... text with many piercing observations and startling comparisons.”
-Los Angeles Times Book Review