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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.

Topics: Language, Anthropology, Social Science, The Middle East, Western Civilization, British Author, Informative, and Communication

Published: HarperCollins on
ISBN: 9780062047359
List price: $12.99
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An impressive and sweeping view of the history of languages throughout human history. It tackles some of the big questions: Why do some languages die out? Why do some flourish, like Chinese or English?

As it turns out, it's a really complex issue. The book starts with the earliest languages (Sumerian, Akkadian, etc.) and moves all the way up through the colonial and modern eras, and speculates on the rise and fall of our languages in the future.

This is dense, but fascinating stuff.more
This book takes a meta-meta-level analysis on "A History of World Languages" (which would have been a more accurate title), looking at languages that have dominated large swathes of the earth for the last 4000 years, and the reasons behind that dominance, be they political, economical, social or other. The author then tries to identify common features of the success and eventual decline of these languages, finally applying these factors to a forecast for the current dominance of English.It is clear that the author is deeply knowledgeable on Akkadian, Sanskrit, Nahuatl and Latin, and inevitably some other languages (such as Russian, and the Germanic and Turkic languages) receive a more superficial treatment than they would deserve. The author moves onto noticeably thin ice when he moves out of his area of specialisation and speculates about current or future economic trends (eg concerning Asia), or when he postulates the demise of Russian as a lingua franca because the Central Asian republics speak mutually intelligible Turkic languages (thereby ignoring the fact that the mutually intelligible vocabulary denotes day-to-day matters, and that specialised vocabulary has been created later, from Arab, Persian or Russian sources or by creating neologisms. As a result, these republics predominantly still communicate in Russian with each other, and Russian as lingua franca is still very much alive and well). The author neatly summarises every chapter at its conclusion, which may give some readers an impression of being condescended to (but in any case is to be preferred to excessively hermetic texts or ramshackle trains of thought).Otherwise, a well-written book and deeply researched that adds a much-needed high-level analysis to the "languages" bookshelf. A keeper, to be consulted again and again.more
I'm very interested in this subject but this book is dry. How about some prose and a couple of interesting asides?more
useful and informativemore
Very enjoyable work of linguistic history (NOT historical linguistics) that looks at how and why some languages came to be used by millions of non-native speakers, while others remained firmly stuck in their own back yards. Impressively well researched with a heavy reliance on contemporary sources, very well written, and thought-provoking from both linguistic and historical perspectives.more
Ostler is at his best when writing about "classic" languages such as Sumerian, Sanskrit, Greek, or Chinese, and why they were influential. When he's writing about modern languages and their desemination this book comes off more as a potted history of Western imperialism, in regards to pointing out the limitations of force and power in terms of spreading a language. This is apart from good observations on the nature of English and the fall of Latin.more
very detailed, exhaustive, fascinatingmore
Tour de force! Not a perfect book, no, but only in the sense that nothing is perfect in this imperfectest of all worlds. He drops in and out of giving those all-important pronunciation guides, which start out making the book seem so immaculate. And the whole project of "world language history" is so macro that the later chapters, on French and Russian and English especially, have a bit of a survey-of-familiar-ground-with-tidbits feel. But these are small, not to say churlish, objections. This book is huge, with amazing sweep. It provides a theoretical framework that is fresh and of utility to the scholar as well as the armchair historian and/or pedant. It gives you the joy of getting new sounds and strange civilizations into your head, helps you understand the contingencies and the might-have-beens, and delivers up worlds beyond your imagination. And hell, I like the linguistic essentialism of "Arabic’s austere grandeur and egalitarianism; Chinese and Egyptian’s unshakeable self-regard; Sanskrit’s luxuriating classifications and hierarchies; Greek’s self-confident innovation leading to self-obsession and pedantry; Latin’s civic sense; Spanish rigidity, cupidity, and fidelity; French admiration for rationality; and English admiration for business acumen," and if that makes me a shameless modernist, well, (it doesn't, but) so be it. This book makes me feel very good about an MA in English language, and I learned a lot more along with the affirmation than I would have from PAolo Coelho or "Tuesdays with Morrie."more
In the end, achieves nothing. Attempt at a sweeping, encyclopedic and truly monumental overview of the world's major languages and linguistic families. In a mix of linguistics and history, traces their origin, evolution and future. Much information contained therein, some language groups stronger than others but the author over-reaches, does not offer enough, is not illustrative in his examples, and is unfortunately unclear at times. Much was expected of this book, much was promised, but ultimately, achieves little. Hence the rating.more
Fascinating history of major languages going back to the earliest written records in the Middle East, South Asia, East Asia, Europe, and the Americas. Ostler attempts to explain why some languages succeed and others don't, in terms of increasing number of speakers and spreading into new territories. The explanations are somewhat convincing but very uneven. Sometimes he seems to be rushing just to cover stuff, in particular the chapter on European languages other than English. And while he knows his languages, the interpretation of history is perhaps a bit spotty, especially as we get to the 20th century. That said, this was a good read. I learned a lot about non-European languages and their spread, as well as about the process of the spread of Germanic and Romance languages in Europe.more
Much drier and more verbose than it really needed to be. Had lots of potentially interesting info, but I just couldn't slog through it.more
Read all 15 reviews

Reviews

An impressive and sweeping view of the history of languages throughout human history. It tackles some of the big questions: Why do some languages die out? Why do some flourish, like Chinese or English?

As it turns out, it's a really complex issue. The book starts with the earliest languages (Sumerian, Akkadian, etc.) and moves all the way up through the colonial and modern eras, and speculates on the rise and fall of our languages in the future.

This is dense, but fascinating stuff.more
This book takes a meta-meta-level analysis on "A History of World Languages" (which would have been a more accurate title), looking at languages that have dominated large swathes of the earth for the last 4000 years, and the reasons behind that dominance, be they political, economical, social or other. The author then tries to identify common features of the success and eventual decline of these languages, finally applying these factors to a forecast for the current dominance of English.It is clear that the author is deeply knowledgeable on Akkadian, Sanskrit, Nahuatl and Latin, and inevitably some other languages (such as Russian, and the Germanic and Turkic languages) receive a more superficial treatment than they would deserve. The author moves onto noticeably thin ice when he moves out of his area of specialisation and speculates about current or future economic trends (eg concerning Asia), or when he postulates the demise of Russian as a lingua franca because the Central Asian republics speak mutually intelligible Turkic languages (thereby ignoring the fact that the mutually intelligible vocabulary denotes day-to-day matters, and that specialised vocabulary has been created later, from Arab, Persian or Russian sources or by creating neologisms. As a result, these republics predominantly still communicate in Russian with each other, and Russian as lingua franca is still very much alive and well). The author neatly summarises every chapter at its conclusion, which may give some readers an impression of being condescended to (but in any case is to be preferred to excessively hermetic texts or ramshackle trains of thought).Otherwise, a well-written book and deeply researched that adds a much-needed high-level analysis to the "languages" bookshelf. A keeper, to be consulted again and again.more
I'm very interested in this subject but this book is dry. How about some prose and a couple of interesting asides?more
useful and informativemore
Very enjoyable work of linguistic history (NOT historical linguistics) that looks at how and why some languages came to be used by millions of non-native speakers, while others remained firmly stuck in their own back yards. Impressively well researched with a heavy reliance on contemporary sources, very well written, and thought-provoking from both linguistic and historical perspectives.more
Ostler is at his best when writing about "classic" languages such as Sumerian, Sanskrit, Greek, or Chinese, and why they were influential. When he's writing about modern languages and their desemination this book comes off more as a potted history of Western imperialism, in regards to pointing out the limitations of force and power in terms of spreading a language. This is apart from good observations on the nature of English and the fall of Latin.more
very detailed, exhaustive, fascinatingmore
Tour de force! Not a perfect book, no, but only in the sense that nothing is perfect in this imperfectest of all worlds. He drops in and out of giving those all-important pronunciation guides, which start out making the book seem so immaculate. And the whole project of "world language history" is so macro that the later chapters, on French and Russian and English especially, have a bit of a survey-of-familiar-ground-with-tidbits feel. But these are small, not to say churlish, objections. This book is huge, with amazing sweep. It provides a theoretical framework that is fresh and of utility to the scholar as well as the armchair historian and/or pedant. It gives you the joy of getting new sounds and strange civilizations into your head, helps you understand the contingencies and the might-have-beens, and delivers up worlds beyond your imagination. And hell, I like the linguistic essentialism of "Arabic’s austere grandeur and egalitarianism; Chinese and Egyptian’s unshakeable self-regard; Sanskrit’s luxuriating classifications and hierarchies; Greek’s self-confident innovation leading to self-obsession and pedantry; Latin’s civic sense; Spanish rigidity, cupidity, and fidelity; French admiration for rationality; and English admiration for business acumen," and if that makes me a shameless modernist, well, (it doesn't, but) so be it. This book makes me feel very good about an MA in English language, and I learned a lot more along with the affirmation than I would have from PAolo Coelho or "Tuesdays with Morrie."more
In the end, achieves nothing. Attempt at a sweeping, encyclopedic and truly monumental overview of the world's major languages and linguistic families. In a mix of linguistics and history, traces their origin, evolution and future. Much information contained therein, some language groups stronger than others but the author over-reaches, does not offer enough, is not illustrative in his examples, and is unfortunately unclear at times. Much was expected of this book, much was promised, but ultimately, achieves little. Hence the rating.more
Fascinating history of major languages going back to the earliest written records in the Middle East, South Asia, East Asia, Europe, and the Americas. Ostler attempts to explain why some languages succeed and others don't, in terms of increasing number of speakers and spreading into new territories. The explanations are somewhat convincing but very uneven. Sometimes he seems to be rushing just to cover stuff, in particular the chapter on European languages other than English. And while he knows his languages, the interpretation of history is perhaps a bit spotty, especially as we get to the 20th century. That said, this was a good read. I learned a lot about non-European languages and their spread, as well as about the process of the spread of Germanic and Romance languages in Europe.more
Much drier and more verbose than it really needed to be. Had lots of potentially interesting info, but I just couldn't slog through it.more
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