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Empires of the Word
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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 and makes possible both the living of a common history and the telling of it. 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. A splendid, authoritative, and remarkable work, it demonstrates how the language history of the world eloquently reveals the real character of our planet's diverse peoples and prepares us for a linguistic future full of surprises.

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ISBN: 9780062047359
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Empires of the Word - Nicholas Ostler

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qūwatu l- ’insāni fi ‘aqlihi wa lisānihi.

The strength of a person is in his intelligence and his tongue.

(Arabic proverb)

If language is what makes us human, it is languages that make us superhuman.

Human thought is unthinkable without the faculty of language, but language pure and undifferentiated is a fantasy of philosophers. Real language is always found in some local variant: English, Navajo, Chinese, Swahili, Burushaski or one of several thousand others. And every one of these links its speakers into a tradition that has survived for thousands of years. Once learnt in a human community, it will provide access to a vast array of knowledge and belief: assets that empower us, when we think, when we listen, when we speak, read or write, to stand on the shoulders of so much ancestral thought and feeling. Our language places us in a cultural continuum, linking us to the past, and showing our meanings also to future fellow-speakers.

This book is fundamental. It is about the history of those traditions, the languages. Far more than princes, states or economies, it is language-communities who are the real players in world history, persisting through the ages, clearly and consciously perceived by their speakers as symbols of identity, but nonetheless gradually changing, and perhaps splitting or even merging as the communities react to new realities. This interplay of languages is an aspect of history that has too long been neglected.

As well as being the banners and ensigns of human groups, languages guard our memories too. Even when they are unwritten, languages are the most powerful tools we have to conserve our past knowledge, transmitting it, ever and anon, to the next generation. Any human language binds together a human community, by giving it a network of communication; but it also dramatizes it, providing the means to tell, and to remember, its stories.

It is not possible, even in a book as big as this one, to tell all those stories. Empires of the Word concentrates on the languages that, for one reason or another, grew out from their homes, and spread across the world. But even with such a stringent entry qualification, cutting the number of stories from many thousand to a couple of dozen, the remaining diversity is still overwhelming. In a way, there are so many tales to tell that the work is less a telling of a single story than a linguistic Thousand and One Nights.

We shall range over the amazing innovations, in education, culture and diplomacy, thought up 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 much later, the improbable details of how they were projected across the world.

Besides these epic achievements, language failures are no less interesting. The Western Roman Empire was thoroughly overrun by German-speakers in the fifth century. These conquests laid the basis for the countries of modem western Europe: so why did German get left behind? In Africa, Egyptian had been surviving foreign takeovers for over three millennia: why did it shrivel and disappear after the influx of Muhammad’s Arabic? And in the modern era, the Netherlands had ruled the East Indies for the same period that Britain ruled India: so why is Dutch unknown in modern Indonesia? Until such questions are answered, the global spread of English can never be understood.

On a cultural level, there is fascination too in the world-views that went with the advancing and receding languages. Ironies abound: Latin could make no headway with the sophisticates of the eastern Mediterranean, who spoke Greek and Aramaic, but it was quickly embraced by the illiterate peoples of Gaul and Spain. In the Americas, Catholic missionaries slowed for centuries the spread of Spanish, but in Asia, Evangelical Protestants turned out to be crucial to the take-up of English. We may as well admit at the outset that the mysteries of linguistic attraction and linguistic influence run deep: to tell the story is not always to understand it.

Nevertheless, I believe that the universal study of language history, of which this is a first attempt, is at least as enlightening and valid a focus for science as the more usual concerns of historical linguistics. It is as significant to compare the linguistic effects of the Roman and the Germanic conquests of Gaul as it is to compare the structures of the Latin and Germanic verb-systems—indeed just possibly one might throw some light on the other. Languages by their nature define communities, and so offer clearer units than most in social studies on which to base comparative analyses. Not enough attention has been paid to the growth, development and collapse of language communities through time, and the light these may shed on the kinds of society that spoke these languages. It is a received truth, for example, that in the Roman Empire the west was administered in Latin, the east in Greek, and the Greek administration lasted for many centuries more than the Latin: how surprising, but how revealing then, that when the time came for the defences to collapse and the Empire’s provinces to be overrun, Latin survived—and has never been replaced—but Greek largely evaporated within a couple of generations.

The language history of the world can be eloquent of the real character of peoples, their past movements and changes. It also offers some broad hints for the future. Asked in 1898 to choose a single defining event in recent history, the German chancellor Bismarck replied, ‘North America speaks English’. He was right, as the twentieth century showed. Twice the major powers of North America stepped in to determine the outcome of struggles that started in Europe, each time on the side of the English-speaking forces. Even more, the twentieth century’s technological revolutions in communications, telephones, films, car ownership, television, computing and the Internet, were led overwhelmingly from English-speaking America, projecting its language across the world, to parts untouched even by the British Empire. It seems almost as if a world language revolution is following on, borne by the new media.

But though the spread of a language is seldom reversible, it is never secure. Even a language as broadly based as English is in the twenty-first century cannot be immune. It is still threatened by those old causes of language succession: changes in population growth, patterns of trade and cultural prestige. For all the recent technical mastery of English, nothing guarantees long-term pre-eminence in publishing, broadcasting or the World Wide Web. Technology, like the jungle, is neutral.

Language history does not, in itself, explain the past, or predict the future. There are thousands of language traditions, and their relative sizes are changing dynamically. Important innovations can arise in any one of them; in modern conditions especially, innovations may spread fast. Languages such as Egyptian and Akkadian, Sanskrit and Persian, Greek and Latin, in their day all seemed irresistible in their dominance and their prestige. But as they found to their cost, speaker populations can be unsentimental.

The language future, like the language past, is set to be full of surprises. But to find out what has happened in history overall, the true winners and losers among human groups, we cannot ignore the outcomes of the language struggle.

Little Solsbury Hill, 28 July 2004


On 8 November 1519 Hernán Cortés and a band of three hundred Spaniards met for the first time the supreme ruler of Mexico. The venue was the causeway across the lake leading to its capital city, Tenochtitlán. All around them was water. On the eastern horizon a volcano could be seen in eruption. Cortés was on horseback, bearded, in shining armour, belying his recent career as a small-town law officer and amateur gold prospector. Motecuhzoma,* born to sit on the royal mat of Mexico and already victorious in many wars, was carried on a litter, resplendent in a vast circular headdress with plumes of lustrous green quetzal, ornaments on his nose, ears and lower lip, behind him an escort of warriors wearing jaguar hides and eagle feathers.

After an exchange of gifts, the Spaniards were led into the city, and accommodated in a palace that had been the residence of Motecuhzoma’s father. They were given a dinner of turkey, fruit and maize tamales. Then Motecuhzoma, whose official title was tlatoani, ‘speaker’, returned to greet his guests.

This was the first moment when the two leaders shared directly with each other their understanding of this epoch-making encounter: the ruler of the largest empire in the Americas, still at the height of his power, coming face to face with the self-appointed emissary of the king of Spain, who, though under guard in a well-kept and well-ordered city, larger than any to be seen in Europe, was yet strangely unawed. Their words set the tone for all that was to follow, above all the tragic diplomacy and incomprehension of the Aztecs, and the calculating, dissembling, but unremitting, aggression of the Spaniards. It was the first step towards the replacement of Nahuatl as the imperial language of Mexico, and the progress of Spanish towards its establishment as the language first of government and religion and then of everything else in the New World.¹

Motecuhzoma opened with a flowery speech in Nahuatl, translated by the interpreters whom Cortés had brought with him: Malin-tzin, a Mexican noblewoman, rendered the Nahuatl into Yucatec Maya, and Fray Géronimo de Aguilar, a Spanish priest, conveyed the sense of the Maya into Spanish. Cortés then replied in Spanish, and the process ran in reverse.

Totēukyoe, ōtikmihiyōwiltih ōtikmoziyawiltih*

Our Lord, how you must have suffered, how fatigued you must be.

This was a conventional greeting, although there would have been few whom the tlatoani of all Mexico would address as tēukyoe, ‘Lordship’.

ō tlāltiteç tommahzītīko, ō īteç tommopāčiwiltīko in mātzin in motepētzin, Mešihko, ō īpan tommowetziko in mopetlatzin, in mokpaltzin, in ō ačitzinka nimitzonnopiyalīlih, in ōnimitzonnotlapiyalīlih …

You have graciously come on earth, you have approached your water, your high place of Mexico, you have come down to your mat, your throne, which I have briefly kept for you, I who used to keep it for you.

This was already strange. Motecuhzoma was addressing Cortés as a steward to his sovereign. ‘For they have gone, your governors, the kings, Itzcoatl, the old Motecuhzoma, Axayacatl, Tizoc, Ahuitzotl, who hitherto have come to be guardians of your domain, to govern the water, the high place of Mexico, they behind whom, following whom your subjects have advanced,’

This was really bizarre. Motecuhzoma seemed to place Cortés as a long-lost, supreme king of this very land. ‘Do they still haunt what they have left, what is behind them? If only one of them could see and admire what has happened to me today, what I now see in the absence of our lords, unbeknown to them. It is not just a fantasy, just a dream; I am not dreaming, not fantasising; for I have seen you, I have looked upon you.’* Now he was claiming to have had a vision of some kind. Cortes must already have been thinking that chance, or God, was delivering the Mexican leader into his power. ‘For I have long (for five days, for ten days) been anxious to look far away to the mysterious place whence you are come, in the clouds, in the mists. So this is the fulfilment of what kings have said, that you would graciously return to your water, your high place, that you would return to sit upon your mat and your throne, that you would come.’† Too easy: Cortés was being recognised as a promised messiah, by none other than the leader of the country he hoped to conquer. ‘And now that has come true, you have graciously arrived, you have known pain, you have known weariness, now come on earth, take your rest, enter into your palace, rest your limbs; may our lords come on earth.’§

Coités was not slow to take advantage of this astounding appearance of fealty on the part of the Mexican ruler, but he did not simply accept the apparent submission to him personally, as perhaps he could have. What further behaviour, after all, might an Aztec expect of him, if he had claimed to be a returning god? And how would his own men react? Instead he reinforced Motecuhzoma’s wonderment at the miraculous origin of his mission, and wove in a little flattery at how far the ruler’s reputation must have travelled. But immediately Cortés appealed to his own duties to his own God and king as he saw them, imposing them heavily on his interlocutor. He even ended with a gesture at a sermon.

An eyewitness recounts:

Cortés replied through our interpreters [lenguas, ‘tongues’], who were always with him, especially Doõa Marina [Malin-tzin], and told him that he did not know with what to repay him, neither himself or any of us, for all the great favours received every day, and that certainly we came from where the sun rises, and we are vassals and servants of a great lord called the great emperor Don Carlos, who has subject to him many great princes, and that having news of Motecuhzoma and of what a great lord he is, he sent us here to see him and ask him that they should be Christians, as is our emperor and are we all, and that he and all his vassals would save their souls. He went on to say that presently he would declare to him more of how and in what manner it must be, and how we worship a single true God, and who he is, and many other good things he should hear, as he had told his ambassadors …*

This exchange in Nahuatl and Spanish records a moment of destiny when the pattern was set for the irruption of one language community into another. It happens to be exceedingly well documented on both sides, but it is not unique. These pioneer moments of fatal impact have happened throughout human history: as when, on 11 July 1770, Captain James Cook of Great Britain’s Royal Navy encountered Australian aboriginals speaking Guugu Yimidhirr in what is now the north of Queensland; or in the first century AD, when a South Indian named Kaundinya came ashore at Bnam in Cambodia, and soon married its queen, called Soma (or Liuye, ‘Willow-Leaf’, in the Chinese report), so transplanting Sanskrit culture into South-East Asia.

This book traces the history of those languages which, in the part of human history that we now know, have spread most widely. Somehow, and for a variety of reasons, the communities that spoke them were able to persuade others to join them, and so they expanded. The motives for that persuasion can be very diverse—including military domination, hopes of prosperity, religious conversion, attendance at a boarding school, service in an army, and many others beside. But at root this persuasion is the only way that a language can spread, and it is no small thing, as anyone who has ever tried deliberately to learn another language knows.

* Better known in the corrupted form Montezuma. Phonetically, it was moteukzoma.

* In each chapter, a convenient form of romanised spelling has been adopted, to do justice to the pronunciation of fragments of an unfamiliar language, while not diverging too far from non-linguists’ ideas of how the Roman alphabet is pronounced. In general, vowels are to be pronounced pure and simple, as in Spanish, consonants and clusters as in English, and any peculiarities are announced in the first footnote. Here, for Nahuatl, the traditional (Spanish-like) romanisation has not been followed: instead, č represents English ch, and š English sh; h is used for the glottal stop, like the unheard t in the English and Scots pronunciation of Scotland; z here is closer to English s than z. Long vowels have a macron: ā, ē, … Common words may be simplified: e.g., stricty, it is tlahloāni.

† Ka ōyahkeh motēčīuhkāwān, in tlahtohkeh, in Ilzkōwātzin, in wēweh Motēukzoma, in Āšāyaka, in Tizōzik, in Āwltzōtl, in ō kuēl ačīk mitzommotlaplyalīlikoh, in ōkipačōkoh in ātl in tepetl in Mešihko, in īnkuitlapan, īntepotzko in ōwalyetiyā in momāzēwaltzin.

* Kuix ok wāllamatih in īmonihka, in intepotzko? Mā zēmeh yehwāntin kitztiyānih, kimāwizzōtiānih in nehwātl in āxkān nopan ōmočīuh, in ye nikitta, in zā īmonihka īntepotzko totēukyōwān. Kamo zan nitēmiki, ahmō zan nikočitlēwa, ahmō zan nikkočitta, ahmō zan niklēmiki, ka yē ōnimitznottili, mīštzinko ōnitlačiš.

† Ka ōnnonēntlamattikaatka in ye mākuil, in ye mahtlāk, in ōmpa nonitztikah in kēnamihkān in ātimokīštīko in mištitlan, in ayauhtitlan. Anka yehwātl in in ki tēnēuhtiwih in tlahtohkeh, in tikmomačitikiuh in mātzin, in motepētzin, in īpan timowetzītīkiuh in mpetlazin, in mokpaltzin, in tiwālmowīkaz.

§ Auh in āškān ka ōneltik, ōtiwalmowīkak, ōtikmihiyōwihi, ōtikmoziyawiltih, mā tlāltiteč šimahšīti, mā šimozēwihtzino, mā šokommomačiti in motēkpankaltzin, mā xikmozēwili in monakayōlzin, mā tlāltiteč mahšitikan in totēukyōwān.

* Cortés le respondió con nuestras lenguas, que consigo siempre estaban, especial la dona Marina, y le dijo que no sabe con qué pagar él ni todos nosotros las grandes mercedes recibidas de cada día, y que ciertamente veníamos de donde sale el sol, y somos vasallos y criados de un gran senor que se dice el gran emperador don Carlos, que tiene sujetos a sí muchos y grandes príncipes, y que teniendo noticia de él y de cuán gran seõor es, nos envió a estas partes a le ver a rogar que sean cristianos, como es nuestro emperador y todos nosotros, e que salvarán sus ánimas él y todos sus vasallos, e que adelante le declarará más cómo e de qué manera ha de ser, y como adoramos a un solo Dios verdadero, y quién es, y otras muchas cosas buenas que oirá, como les había dicho a sus embajadores Tendile e Pitalpitoque e Quintalvor cuando estábamos en los arenales. (Díaz del Castillo, lxxxix)



[King Xerxes] gave Themistocles leave to speak his mind freely on Greek affairs. Themistocles replied that the speech of man was like rich carpets, the patterns of which can only be shown by spreading them out; when the carpets are folded up, the patterns are obscured and lost; and therefore he asked for time. The king was pleased with the simile, and told him to take his time; and so he asked for a year. Then, having learnt the Persian language sufficiently, he spoke with the king on his own …

Plutarch, Themistocles, 29.5


Themistocles’ Carpet

The language view of human history

From the language point of view, the present population of the world is not six billion, but something over six thousand.

There are between six and seven thousand communities in the world today identified by the first language that they speak. They are not of equal weight. They range in size from Mandarin Chinese with some 900 million speakers, alone accounting for one sixth of all the people in the world, followed by English and Spanish with approximately 300 million apiece, to a long tail of tiny communities: over half the languages in the world, for example, have fewer than five thousand speakers, and over a thousand languages have under a dozen. This is a parlous time for languages.

In considering human history, the language community is a very natural unit. Languages, by their nature as means of communication, divide humanity into groups: only through a common language can a group of people act in concert, and therefore have a common history. Moreover the language that a group shares is precisely the medium in which memories of their joint history can be shared. Languages make possible both the living of a common history, and also the telling of it.

And every language possesses another feature, which makes it the readiest medium for preserving a group’s history. Every language is learnt by the young from the old, so that every living language is the embodiment of a tradition. That tradition is in principle immortal. Languages change, as they pass from the lips of one generation to the next, but there is nothing about this process of transmission which makes for decay or extinction. Like life itself, each new generation can receive the gift of its language afresh. And so it is that languages, unlike any of the people who speak them, need never grow infirm, or die.

Every language has a chance of immortality, but this is not to say that it will survive for ever. Genes too, and the species they encode, are immortal; but extinctions are a commonplace of palaeontology. Likewise, the actual lifespans of language communities vary enormously. The annals of language history are full of languages that have died out, traditions that have come to an end, leaving no speakers at all.

The language point of view on history can be contrasted with the genetic approach to human history, which is currently revolutionising our view of our distant past. Like membership in a biological species and a matrilineal lineage, membership in a language community is based on a clear relation. An individual is a member of a species if it can have offspring with other members of the species, and of a matrilineal lineage if its mother is in that lineage. Likewise, at the most basic level, you are a member of a language community if you can use its language.

The advantage of this linguistically defined unit is that it necessarily defines a community that is important to us as human beings. The species unit is interesting, in defining our prehistoric relations with related groups such as Homo erectus and the Neanderthals, but after the rise of Homo sapiens its usefulness yields to the evident fact that, species-wise, we are all in this together. The lineage unit too has its points, clearly marked down the aeons as it is by mitochondrial DNA and Y-chromosomes, and can yield interesting evidence on the origin of populations if some lineage clearly present today in the population is missing in one of the candidate groups put forward as ancestors. So it has been inferred that Polynesians could not have come from South America, that most of the European population have parentage away from the Near Eastern sources of agriculture, and that the ancestry of most of the population of the English Midlands is from Friesland.¹ But knowing that many people’s mothers, or fathers, are unaccounted for does not put a bound on a group as a whole in the way that language does.

Contrast a unit such as a race, whose boundaries are defined by nothing more than a chosen set of properties, whether as in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by superficial resemblances such as skin colour or cranial proportions, or more recently by blood and tissue groups and sequences of DNA. Likewise, there are insurmountable problems in defining its cultural analogue, the nation, which entail the further imponderables of a consciousness of shared history, and perhaps shared language too.² Given that so many of the properties get shuffled on to different individuals in different generations, it remains moot as to what to make of any set of characteristics for a race or a nation.* But use of a given language is an undeniable functioning reality everywhere; above all, it is characteristic of every human group known, and persistent over generations. It provides a universal key for dividing human history into meaningful groups.

Admittedly, a language community is a more diffuse unit than a species or a lineage: a language changes much faster than a DNA sequence, and one cannot even be sure that it will always be transmitted from one generation to the next. Some children grow up speaking a language other than their parents’. As we shall soon see, language communities are not always easy to count, or to distinguish reliably. But they are undeniably real features of the human condition.

The task of this book is to chart some of the histories of the language traditions that have come to be most populous, ones that have spread themselves in the historic period over vast areas of the inhabited world. Our view will be restricted to language histories for which there is direct written evidence, and this means omitting some of the most ancient, such as the spread of Bantu across southern Africa, or of the Polynesian languages across the Pacific; but nevertheless the tale is almost always one that covers millennia. The history of humanity seen from its languages is a long view.

The state of nature

Languages have been the currency of human communities for hundreds of thousands of years, and naturally the typical language community has changed in that time. The presumption is that before the discovery and expansion of agriculture, human communities were small bands, just as the remaining groupings of hunter-gatherers are to this day. These groups all have languages, and ancient lore and stories which the old retail to the young. The density of the human population, wherever people were living, would have been far less than it is today. It is a commonplace of historical linguistics that related languages diverge when contact ceases between groups, so we can also presume that in this early period each self-sufficient community, of up to a few thousand people, would by and large have had its own language.

All this changed in communities that adopted a settled way of life, based on herding and agriculture. Now communities would have become both larger and more organised. In settled communities, one’s neighbours in one year would remain one’s neighbours for many years, indeed generations, to come. One might have dues to pay, and negotiate, with higher authorities. Festivals, and markets, would bring together people from a wide area. Militias would be raised to defend local communities, and to steal from others perceived to be weaker. There began to be a motive for communication among people over longer distances. Bilingualism would have increased in the population, and also languages would have grown in terms of the number of speakers; quite likely, too, the absolute number of languages would have fallen, smaller communities losing speakers through war, marriage or desertion, or simply a pragmatic tendency to use other people’s languages.

From the very nature of the changing situation we could have inferred these processes. But in fact it has been possible to watch them. They have been observed in accelerated development in the last couple of generations in Papua New Guinea, as the old self-sufficient ways of life in villages and hamlets yield to a wider-ranging national way of life. A feature of this transition is the decline of many of the indigenous languages and their replacement through the expansion of neighbouring tongues, or more globally by languages associated with trade at the national level, or government: utility jargons or pidgins are quickly transformed into general-purpose Creole languages, informally but effectively standardised across vast numbers of speakers.

Literacy and the beginning of language history

As long as there has been storytelling, and the dispensing of legal judgments and healing rituals, there have been linguistic records, retained verbally in the memories of learned members of the community. The minds of the old are a weighty resource, filled with songs and precedents, skills and maps, recipes and histories.

But there was always a subjective element in learning derived from recitation, as well as a practical limit on the amount that could be retained—unless perhaps complementary teams of record-keepers could be organised. Moreover, speaking now from the anachronistic point of view of the modern historian, there would always be a tendency to inauthenticity in ancient records held in memory. In use, there was always a pressure to update them little by little to meet the needs of the contemporary world: otherwise, as gradual changes accumulate in social institutions and in the language too, really ancient records would tend to become both irrelevant and incomprehensible. Even today, when oral traditions can be found intact, it is seldom possible to gain clear, unambiguous information about the past from the testimony of rememberers. Recall is an act of disciplined reimagination, and the remote past may be beyond anyone’s ken.

All this is resolved through the miracle of writing. Writing traditions usually begin in some kind of process of accounting records—at least tallies and tokens are often the earliest clear predecessors of written documents to survive—the intent being to provide objective proof of the quantities involved in some transaction. But with practice it often became clear that the symbols were in principle capable of recording any message, and as facility in handling the symbols grew they became usable as a direct aide-mémoire even for fluent speech.

Once a culture has written documents, the first traces begin to be laid down which will later enable the history of the language to be written. If the writing system has a clear link to the language as spoken (and, despite the usual symbolic start in numbers and concepts, in practice it is impossible to develop a fully functional writing system without reference to words in spoken language), then the mute stones or clay tablets or preserved animal skins—whatever—begin to reveal to us something we might have thought quite evanescent—how the language was actually spoken, perhaps thousands of years ago.*

All the languages whose careers we shall consider have written histories that extend back over a thousand years, and sometimes two or three times this long. In almost every case, literacy is a skill that was learnt from visitors or neighbours, and then became part of a language’s own tradition. As it happens, with the exception of Chinese, even the languages that originated writing, and so made the earliest use of it, have dropped their original system, and borrowed another,

The past careers of languages are as diverse as the worlds that each language has created for its speakers. They have suffered very different fates: some (like Sanskrit or Aramaic) growing to have speaker populations distributed across vast tracts, but ultimately shrinking to insignificance; others (such as the languages of the Caucasus or Papua) twinkling steadily in inaccessible refuges; others still yielding up their speakers to quite different traditions (as in so many parts of North and South America, Africa and Australia). Some (such as Egyptian and Chinese) maintained their speakers and their traditions for thousands of years in a single territory, defying all invaders; others (such as Greek and Latin) spread by military invasion, but ultimately lost ground to new invaders.

Often enough, one tradition has piggybacked on another, ultimately supplanting it. One big language parasitises another, and in a coup de main takes over the channels built up over generations. This is a common trick as empires succeed one another, in every time and continent: Persia’s Aramaic made good use of the networks established for Lydian in seventh-century Asia Minor; in the sixteenth century, Spanish usurped the languages of the Aztecs and Incas, using them to rule in Mexico and Peru; and in the early days of British India, English and Urdu gained access to power structures built in Persian. But the timescale on which these changing fortunes have been played out is astonishingly varied: a single decade may set the pattern for a thousand years to follow, as when Alexander took over the eastern Mediterranean from the Persians; or a particular trend may assert itself little by little, mile by mile, village by village, over thousands of years: just so did Chinese percolate in East Asia.

This means that, for all its bewildering variety, this history told through languages can give an insight into the long-term effects of sudden changes. This is true especially where what is changing is how nation shall speak unto nation, as it is today.

In fact, the complex effects on languages when cultures come into contact is the best record we have of real influence: contrast the more familiar analyses based on military conquest or commercial dominance, which may offer a quite spurious clarity. How thoroughgoing was the Germanic tribes’ lightning conquest of the western Roman empire in the fifth century AD? Though it changed for good all the crowned heads, it left France, Spain and northern Italy still speaking variations of Latin, and they have gone on doing so to this day. What was really happening in Assyria in the seventh century BC? It was a period when the rulers’ ascendancy was assured and new conquests were being made: yet all the while its language was changing from Akkadian, the age-old language of its rulers, to Aramaic, the language of the nomads it was reputedly conquering.

The language history of the world shows more of the true impacts of past movements and changes of peoples, beyond the heraldic claims of their largely self-appointed leaders. They reveal a subtle interweave of cultural relations with power politics and economic expediency.

It also offers some broad hints for the future. It suggests rather strongly that no language spread is ultimately secure: even the largest languages in the twenty-first century will be subject either to the old determinants of language succession or some new ones that have arisen in the last five hundred years or the last fifty. Migrations, population growth, changing techniques of education and communication—all shift the balance of language identities across the world, while the focus of prestige and aspiration varies as the world’s economies adjust to the rise of new centres of wealth. Future situations may well be unprecedented, with potential for languages to achieve truly global use, but they will still be human. And human beings seldom stay united for long.

An inward history too

But we can expect the language history of the world to be revealing in another way. A language community is not just a group marked out by its use of a particular language: it is an evolving communion in its own right, whose particular view of the world is informed by a common language tradition. A language brings with it a mass of perceptions, clichés, judgements and inspirations. In some sense, then, when one language replaces another, a people’s view of the world must also be changing.

So as we survey the outward history of the large and influential language communities, in their expansions and retrenchments across the face of the earth, we shall also try to show some aspects of the inward sense of the communities who spoke the languages.

This is something that is very difficult to express, most difficult of all perhaps in the language itself. As Wittgenstein remarked, the limits of my language are the limits of my world; and these limits, he felt, could only be indicated indirectly, never stated explicitly. This book attempts in various indirect ways—and with copious use of translation—to show something of the temper of mind that was conditioned by a language, even as it gained or lost speakers.

It is a dangerous undertaking, but it is crucial if the succession of languages which have dominated human cultures is to have more meaning than the mere list of names and dates in a chronology. It is part of the contention of this book that there is an exchange of something far more subtle than an allegiance when one generation comes to speak a language other than its parents’.

We can get a first inkling of what that might be by comparing more for style than substance those speeches of Motecuhzoma and Cortés. Their languages, Nahuatl and Spanish, are quite distinct from one another, in ways that recall the traits of individual people. Most obviously, just as each person has a recognisable voice, each language has its own sound system or phonology. Consider the phrase ‘your city of Mexico’, in Nahuatl in mātzin in motepētzin, Mešihko, in Spanish Su ciudad de México. The phrase in Nahuatl uses a sound, tz (as in English bits), which is not used in Spanish, just as ciudad begins with a sound, θ (as in English thin), which is absent from Nahuatl. And even where Spanish was attempting to imitate Nahuatl directly, as in the name of México (pronounced MEH-shi-ko), it failed to capture the glottal stop, written with an h in Mēšihko, which probably sounded more like a word that would be spelt in modern English as Meshítko.

But the rules of combination, to create longer words and sentences, are also radically different between the two languages. So the respect implicit in the Spanish use of Su for ‘your’ at the beginning is expressed in Nahuatl by adding tzin at the end of each of the words. In this same phrase, the Nahuatl word for ‘city’ is quite clearly a combination of a-tl, ‘water’, and tepe-tl, ‘mountain’, corresponding to nothing in Spanish, where the word ciudad has more connotations of civic status than geographical eminence. In general, Nahuatl words are mostly long sequences of short parts, often containing as much meaning as a whole sentence in Spanish: ōtikmihiyōwiltih is made up of ō-ti-k-m-ihiyōwi-ltih (past-you-it-yourself-suffer-cause), ‘you have consented to suffer it’, where the reflexive and causative bits (in fourth and final place) actually serve to show special respect, and to raise the formality of the utterance.

But phonology, vocabulary and grammar are just the beginning of what makes languages differ. Just as each person has a distinctive manner of speaking, quite apart from a recognisable voice, there is a characteristic style of expression which goes with each language. This difference may be minimised when languages are in close proximity, and very often translated one into another, as tends to be the case, say, among the languages of western Europe. But it is always there implicitly, and stands out very clearly in the encounter of Nahuatl with Spanish.

The most evident aspect of Nahuatl style is the constant doubling of near-synonyms: ōtikmihiyōwiltih ōtikmoziyawiltih, ‘you have suffered, you are tired’; in mopetlatzin, in mokpaltzin, ‘your mat, your throne’; ahmō zan nikočitlēwa, ahmō zan nikkočitta, ahmō zan niktēmiki, ka yē ōnimitznottili, mīštzinko ōnitlačiš, ‘I am not dreaming, not fantasising; for I have seen you, I have looked upon you.’ By contrast, the characteristic European style of reporting, where a whole speech is retailed curtly in the third person, as in the Spanish account of Cortés’s words, is something quite alien to Nahuatl: not ‘He said: I do not know how to pay you …’ but ‘He told him that he did not know how to pay him …’, etc.

These are examples of the characteristic differences between languages in daily use. But then there is the area of language’s past record, in the minds of its speakers as well as in writing.

Both Motecuhzoma and Cortés were in thrall to their verbal pasts. Cortés was soon engaged in giving an impromptu sermon, which would naturally have made little sense, since his audience lacked a knowledge of the Christian texts with which he had grown up in Catholic Spain. But the tlatoani’s speech, too, is a polished production, redolent of the wewe-tlatolli, ‘the speech of the ancients’, which was part of the curriculum at the kalmēkak, the school for Mexican elite youth. This included, for example, a speech on duty, to be delivered to a recently appointed tlatoani: ‘Our lord of greatest serenity and humanity, and our king of great generosity and valour, more precious than all precious stones, even than sapphire! Could it be a dream that we are seeing? Could we be drunk in seeing what our lord has done for us in giving us you for king and lord? And truly our lord God has set over us a new sun of great splendour and a light like the dawn’s …’³

The same themes are here in this classic school text, of a new leader appearing as in a dream, and being like a light from the sky. But what was missing in Motecuhzoma’s greetings to Cortés was anything like the speech that always preceded this one in the ceremonies of welcome to a new tlatoani, a speech in which he would be fully reminded of his duties, and the need not to let his new eminence go to his head. Would it have seemed strange to the Aztec audience that these friendly cautions were omitted in the greetings to Cortés?

A feature of Nahuatl style has always been the use of endearments as terms of honour: the -tzin we have seen used as an honorific is still used in modern Nahuatl as an affectionate suffix (no-kokonē-tzin, ‘my dear child’), and it has been argued that this was in fact its original sense. Certainly, the polite use of Nahuatl involves some strange reversals from our point of view: a governor at a wedding feast may be spoken to as ‘my dear child’, while the retainers at a royal court would be addressed by their lord as ‘our progenitors’. In Nahuatl etiquette, it seems that genuine respect was shown by adopting a rather daring familiarity, and perhaps the converse was also true. It has even been suggested⁴ that the highly reverential tone and the absence of affectionate terms in Motecuhzoma’s speech to Cortés actually show that he was demeaning the Spaniard, or at least trying to assert a distance between the two of them. If true, this was a singularly ill-judged approach. Cortés was himself a highly educated man—but he could hardly pick up on the courtly subtleties of such an alien rhetoric.

This brief analysis has already shown that the encounter between Spanish and Nahuatl in sixteenth-century Mexico pitted two developed cultures one against another. The switch to speaking Spanish that came about in the next few generations involved a change of heart as well as tongue. So much so that the social significance in Mexico of speaking Nahuatl (also called Mexicano) rather than Spanish has lasted up to the present day. Speakers make comments like these:

There is no way that Nahuatl could disappear because it is the inheritance from our forefathers.

Those of us who speak Mexicano, well, it’s something that belongs to our grandparents. Let Mexicano never be lost. My grandfather and my grandmother always spoke in Nahuatl. They never used the Spanish language.

It is important and at the same time nice to be able to speak Nahuatl because this is the authentic way of talking in Mexico. I consider it very important because we feel we are the authentic Mexicans, because Spanish was only brought here with the Conquest. From that time on people started to speak Spanish in our country. But before the Conquest our grandparents spoke Nahuatl. Obviously the Conquest brought a lot of changes. There was more civilization, and that’s why I think it is important for us also to speak Spanish. But we haven’t been able to stop speaking Nahuatl because our parents speak it and we follow them.

Every language defines a community, the people who speak it and can understand one another. A language acts not just as a means of communication among them but a banner of their distinct identity, often to the despair of national governments trying to forge a single identity for all their different language communities. This can have quite perverse effects. It is no coincidence that Nahuatl, with many other ancestral languages of Mexico, largely disappeared from written use towards the end of the eighteenth century, just when political movements led by urban Spanish speakers were raising consciousness of Mexico as a separate country with a view to independence. The contrast between Spanish-speaking mestizos and ‘Indians’ speaking the ancient languages of Mexico was seen as a distraction from the emergence of the identity of the true Mexican. The older languages, seen as ‘backward’, had to go.

This book attempts to convey something of the characteristic viewpoint on the world of each language whose story it tells. Evidently, living in a particular language does not define a total philosophy of life: but some metaphors will come to mind more readily than others; and some states of mind, or attitudes to others, are easier to assume in one language than another. It cannot be a matter of indifference which language we speak, or which languages our ancestors spoke. Languages frame, analyse and colour our views of the world. ‘I have three hearts,’ claimed Ennius, an early master poet in Latin, on the strength of his fluency in Latin, Greek and Oscan.

* The problem is not that the shared properties are always imaginary (as the Nazis’ criteria for Jewishness may have been), or even objectively unimportant for survival (e.g. as the possession of genes for sickle-cell anaemia and thalassaemia clearly predispose to inherited disease, while giving resistance to malaria). It stems from the logic of statistics: when picking out a population for study, a subset of properties always has to be chosen from a much larger set. But populations who share one subset may not share another—and who is to say (in advance of the study) which properties define the group with the interesting history? In practice, the properties chosen tend to bear out the preconceptions of the researchers, making (e.g.) the correspondence between genetic and traditional linguistic classification of the world’s population groups less than astounding. This necessary arbitrariness in setting up the statistical models is a fundamental flaw in the credibility of the population-gradient prehistory associated with Luca Cavalli-Sforza (e.g. 2001) and his many followers.

* A common problem, ironically, is that writers’ conservatism has made their symbols refer to a version of the language already out of use. Memories of what was learnt in the scribal school can take precedence over what the scribe was actually hearing.

†Egyptian has dropped hieroglyphs, and (now known as Coptic) is written in an alphabet derived from Greek. Akkadian and Sumerian are no longer written at all; so cuneiform is a dead letter. Phoenician too is gone, although every alphabet in use from Ireland to Siam is derived from its original script. Mayan glyphs were discontinued at the time of the Spanish conquest, and now all these languages are written in Roman. Meanwhile Chinese continues to be written in the script first standardised by the man who ordered the burning of every book in the country. See Chapter 4, ‘First Unity’, p. 137.


What It Takes to Be a World Language; or, You Never Can Tell

The historic forces of merger and acquisition which, over the last five hundred years, built up many of the European languages in the world’s Top Twenty seemed to have spent themselves—or at least to be dammed up—by the end of the twentieth century.

Overt imperialism is no longer defended. The end is no longer openly willed, though the two surgical wars that led off the twenty-first century, to conquer Afghanistan and Iraq, show that the means are still accepted. Likewise, the flow of large-scale migration is for the time being halted. In the past two centuries, flows from European countries had created much of what are now the English-speaking and the Portuguese-speaking worlds, mostly in the Americas, but also in Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Then, in the second half of the twentieth century, there was a significant, but much smaller, flow from once colonised countries, which has created new language communities insulated in the heart of European lands.

The trends that will form the future are still obscure. At present, there is still a multitude of migration volunteers, found in a much wider range of countries, not just ex-colonies; the main brake on their movement and resettlement is the unwillingness of their desired host countries to take them in. While some pundits write of an impending ‘clash of civilisations’, pitting most immediately the Arabic- and English-speaking worlds against each other, the political fabric guaranteed by powerful nations seems firm.

But the world’s language future is not a matter of current affairs, or even news analysis. Language spread is a long-term thing, measured at the very least in generations and more often in centuries and millennia. The fundamental question of this book is to ask how—in what circumstances and with what dynamics—language communities have come to flourish in the past, as well as how some of them have declined and even met their ends.

The most straightforward way in which a language can come to flourish could be called the Farmer’s Approach. All the community needs to do is stay united, and grow its population. This is Organic Growth, which is the typical story of large languages in eastern and southern Asia, and not unknown even in Europe, especially towards the east.* It is not a strategy of active initiative, but it does raise a consequent question: how have languages that follow such a policy been able to defend themselves from foreign communities, which might be tempted to invade and disrupt their steady growth?

The disruption would come, by its nature, from language communities following a less placid path: they may be called the Merger and Acquisition languages (M&A), by analogy with the offensive players in the modern business world. If Organic Growth is the strategy of farmers, this alternative could rather be called the Hunter’s Way.

Such change, resulting from direct contact between communities, is sometimes characterised as one of three types: Migration, where a language community moves bodily, bringing a new language with it; Diffusion, where speakers do not actually move in large numbers but where speakers of one community come to assimilate their language to that of another with whom they are in contact; and Infiltration, which is a mixture of the former two.¹ The progress of English into North America and Australia is a case of Migration; into India and Scandinavia, of Diffusion; and into South Africa, of Infiltration.† It is only, for example, through Diffusion or Infiltration that a language can become a lingua franca, a language of wider communication: for this, a language must have been taken up by people who did not speak it natively.

These M&A language communities are the ones whose role develops fast, often through deliberate actions. In practice, these will be the main languages whose careers we trace, because of course they are the most eventful.

Is there any common feature that makes a language community entice others to use its language, and so join it? A way of viewing this book’s theme is as an inquiry into the roots of Language Prestige, defined as the propensity to attract new users. Under what conditions do languages have the power to grow in this way? And are there any properties of the relation between the new and the old language which make speakers willing and able to make the leap?

There is a pernicious belief, widespread even among linguists, that there is a straightforward, heartless, answer to this question. J. R. Firth, a leading British linguist of the mid-twentieth century, makes a good simple statement of it:

World powers make world languages … The Roman Empire made Latin, the British Empire English. Churches too, of course, are great powers … Men who have strong feelings directed towards the world and its affairs have done most. What the humble prophets of linguistic unity would have done without Hebrew, Arabic, Latin, Sanskrit and English, it is difficult to imagine. Statesmen, soldiers, sailors, and missionaries, men of action, men of strong feelings have made world languages. They are built on blood, money, sinews, and suffering in the pursuit of power.²

This is above all a resonant cri de c$oeur from 1937, the dying days of the British empire, muscular Christianity and male supremacism; and (in his defence) Firth seems mainly to have been concerned to contrast the effectiveness of lusty men of action with enervated scholars in building international languages.

Nevertheless it really does not stand up to criticism. As soon as the careers of languages are seriously studied—even the ‘Hebrew, Arabic, Latin, Sanskrit and English’ that Firth explicitly mentions as examples—it becomes clear that this self-indulgently tough-minded view is no guide at all to what really makes a language capable of spreading. It works neither as an account of where all world languages come from, nor what all world powers achieve.

The best case for it might be thought to come from the examples Firth cites, multinational military empires that lasted for centuries, such as the Roman and British efforts. But although Romance languages are still with us, their common name showing their common origin, they grew up in countries where Roman rule had been stably replaced by Germanic conquerors. The Franks, Burgundians, Vandals and Goths who set up the kingdoms of western Europe after the fall of the empire at most had an effect on the accent with which Latin was spoken and added a few words to its vocabulary; they nowhere succeeded in imposing their language on their new subjects. Yet at the other end of the Mediterranean, the Romans themselves had had no better success in spreading Latin: in 395, despite over five hundred years of direct Roman rule, Greeks, Syrians and Egyptians were still talking to each other in Greek. (Thereafter the empire was divided east from west, and Latin soon lost even a formal role in the east.)

Farther afield, in the north of China, repeated conquests by Turkish-, Mongol- and Tungus-speaking invaders, who ruled for some seven hundred years out of a thousand from the fourth century AD, had no effect on the survival of Chinese; finally, the Tungus-speaking Manchu conquered the whole country in 1644, and yet within a century their own language had died out. Back in the Middle East, the triumphs of the Arabic-speaking conquerors were only temporary: from the mid-seventh century, their civilisation monopolised Iran, along with its neighbours to west and east, but when the Seljuk Turks conquered the country from the other side in the eleventh century, it became clear that Arabic had never taken root, and the language of everything but religion reverted to Persian.

Evidently, total conquest, military and even spiritual, is not always enough to effect a language change. Yet at times an apparently weaker community can achieve just this. Consider Aramaic, the language of nomads, which swept through an Assyrian empire still at the height of its power in the eighth century BC, replacing the noble Akkadian, which went back to the very beginning of Mesopotamian civilisation. Or consider Sanskrit, taken up all over South-East Asia in the first millennium AD as the language of elite discourse, even though it came across the sea from India backed by not a single soldier. It even appears that Quechua, which became the language of the Inca empire in Peru in the fifteenth century, had actually been adopted as a dynastic compromise: the rulers gave up their own language in order to secure orderly acceptance of a vast extension of their power.

Economic power, often believed to lie at the root of the spread of English, whether under British or American sponsorship, seems even less coercive than the military. Phoenician shipping dominated the trade of the Mediterranean for most of the first millennium BC; for much of that time, it was backed up in the west by the dominance of the Phoenician colony of Carthage, which spoke the same language. But the Phoenician language seems to have remained unknown outside its own settlements: Greek was the lingua franca for international discourse, used even in the Carthaginian army. Farther east and later on, in the sixth to eighth centuries AD, the queen of the Silk Roads to China was the Iranian city of Samarkand: its language was Sogdian, but who has heard of it? Sogdian merchants, rich as they were, found it politic to use the customers’ languages—Arabic, Chinese, Uighur-Turkic and Tibetan.³

In that muscular quote, Firth had emphasised the religious dimension of power, and this is often important: perhaps, indeed, we should be talking not of language prestige but language charisma. Sanskrit, besides being the sacred language of Hinduism, has owed much to disciples of the Buddha; and Hebrew would have been lost thousands of years ago without Judaism. Arabic is more ambiguous: in the long term, Islam has proved the fundamental motive for its spread, but it was Arab-led armies which actually took the language into western Asia and northern Africa, creating new states in which proselytising would follow. Arabs were also famous as traders round the Indian Ocean, but the acceptance of Islam in this area has never given Arabic anything more than a role in liturgy. Curiously, the linguistic effects of spreading conversions turn out to be almost independent of the preachers’ own priorities: Christians have been fairly indifferent to the language in which their faith is expressed, and their classic text, the New Testament, records the sayings of Jesus in translation; and yet Christianity itself has played a crucial role in the preservation of, and indeed the prestige of, many languages, including Aramaic, Greek, Latin and Gothic.

In fact, proselytising religion has been a factor in the careers of only a minority of world languages. It could be claimed that religion is just an example of the cultural dimension of language, which represents the ultimate source of language prestige. Culture, of course, is an extremely vague word, covering everything from the shaping of hand-axes to corporate mission statements, as well as the finer appreciation of the sonnets of Shakespeare and the paintings of Hokusai; so its relevance will need considerably closer attention.*

In the analysis of prehistoric movements of peoples, and the apparent ruthlessness with which one comes to replace another (as in the Bantu-speaking peoples’ spread across the southern third of Africa, with consequent restriction of the domains of the San and Khoi; or the penetration of Austronesian sailors into South-East Asia and into contact with Melanesians), there is little reluctance to discuss the cultural factors presumed to have given the advantage. Finer arts and higher learning are not usually considered serious contenders. Cultural factors that enhance the ability to support larger populations (for example, by new forms of farming or husbandry) are deemed especially important. But simple innovations in military practice may also be effective.

Occasionally, brute biology takes over, and mere cultural differences are left on the sidelines, for a time irrelevant. If a population was vastly more liable to die from disease, as were the invaded inhabitants of the New World facing European interlopers in the sixteenth century, it hardly mattered that their weaponry and military tactics were also vastly inferior—or by contrast that the vegetables they cultivated (including potatoes and maize, tomatoes and chocolate) turned out to be world-beaters.

But the search for the causes of language prevalence is not usually so easily resolved. In the historic record of contacts between peoples, and contests between languages—when we have eyewitness testimony to keep us honest about what really went on—we often cannot point to cultural differences that were clearly crucial. Then we may have to look deeper: not just into the perceived associations of the different communities, how they looked to each other, the language communities’ subjective reputations as well as their objective advantages, but even—and this is deeply unconventional, especially among linguists—to the properties of the languages themselves.

Bizarrely, linguists almost universally assume that the basic properties of languages which they study—the kinds of sounds a language uses, its basic word order, whether it works by stringing together short and independent words or by coordinating systems of prefixes or suffixes—are irrelevant to languages’ prospects of survival. After all, they reckon, every language is by definition learnable by children: that’s what makes it a human language. If a community has problems propagating its language, there must be a social cause, not a