Every now and again you’ll hear word of a “dying” or “dead” language, a language whose adherents are dwindling or which is no longer actually spoken by any natives (Latin, for example, is pretty much “dead,” even though law students and med students both still have to wrestle with it). In Empires of the Word, linguist Nicholas Ostler looks at what causes languages to live, to flourish, and yes, even to die.
In Ostler’s eyes, the story of the world is “above all” the story of language; without the instrument of shared language, it is impossible to bind a community together. There is no commonality of history, nor shared insight into the nature of humanity without words designed to convey those experiences. As such, the rise and fall of language can indeed be a fascinating window into how societies evolve over time. Ostler, the chairman of the Foundation for Endangered Languages, a charity that supports the efforts of small communities worldwide to know and use their languages more, earned a docorate in linguistics and Sanskrit at MIT; this book is the result of his long-standing fascination with language and the ebbs and flows in the dominance of any particular one.
In this wide-ranging, occasionally meandering narrative, Ostler tracks the landscape of language: from the ancient Sumerian to the Arabic of today, or the persistance of Chinese despite numerous invasions and permutations, or the evolution of Sanskrit, or the current global spread of English. What is intriguing is how he dispels what might be myth: the idea that the dominance of language is always premised upon military might. He points out that Dutch is virtually unknown in modern Indonesia, for example, even though the Dutch ruled the East Indies for as long as the British ruled India; this is a pattern that has repeated itself throughout history.
Language can prove remarkably resiliant—for example, the continued regard for Greek despite the Roman conquest. In fact, as Ostler points out, the conquests of the Roman empire stretched the boundaries of Greek’s linguistic influence. The principal point Ostler focuses on is that the endurance of a language is premised not upon one factor but upon the convergence of many things, including culture and commerce as well as military might. Many languages have remained the “language of trade” long after the military might of the nation which spawned it faded.
While there are those who might suggest that Ostler’s narrative is a bit drifty at times, by and large he manages to fashion a compelling perspective on the endurance of language which is somewhat refreshing. In the long view, many languages have risen and fallen, much like the cultures they represented. It is impossible to be certain that English, currently one of the dominant languages of our day, will retain that status for ever (or even for very long). If (or when) that happens, another language will undoubtedly rise to take its place; humanity, after all, still needs its vehicle for shared community.
Empires of the Word is an accessible, conversational glimpse at the growth and development of languages, and an excellent resource for anyone wanting not a technical breakdown of language, but simply an overview of the rise and fall of the diverse linguistic forces of history.
Author’s Note: This article was originally posted at Wallo World.