Thursday, June 01, 2006

Empires of the Word - by Nicholas Ostler

Ostler's Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World sparkles with ideas that are new to me at least. Ostler does not look at all languages as equally interesting, but at which ones became world languages, and why.

There has been a tendency to see such processes as almost accidental, but, while Ostler does agree that Empires spread languages, as do missionaries, he notes other, less obvious aspects. World languages that spread or overtake old languages which are similar to the old. Akkadian-Aramean-Arabic have all been the languages of great Empires, and all came to dominate the near-east. But even when the Persians conquered Babylonia, Assyria and Canaan, their Indo-European language did not spread. When the boot was on the other foot, Arabic spread everywhere in the old Akkadian/Aramaic world, but never took hold in Persia.

The book is full of similar provocations. If you liked the world-spanning view of Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel, you will probably like this. Slowly we are building up a library of truly global history books that are not just expanded western civ hack jobs.

There is an NPR show on the whole subject: NPR on Endangered Languages
[hat tip to Tony Marmo]

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