9780060935726

Empires of the Word : A Language History of the World

by
  • ISBN13:

    9780060935726

  • ISBN10:

    0060935723

  • Edition: Reprint
  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 3/16/2009
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publications
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Summary

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.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgements xiii
List of Maps, Tables and Figures
xv
Maps
xv
Tables
xvii
Figures
xvii
Preface xix
Prologue: A Clash of Languages 1(4)
PART I: THE NATURE OF LANGUAGE HISTORY
5(22)
Themistocles' Carpet
7(11)
The language view of human history
7(2)
The state of nature
9(1)
Literacy and the beginning of language history
10(3)
An inward history too
13(5)
What It Takes to Be a World Language; or, You Never Can Tell
18(9)
PART II: LANGUAGES BY LAND
27(296)
The Desert Blooms: Language Innovation in the Middle East
29(84)
Three sisters who span the history of 4500 years
35(3)
The story in brief: Language leapfrog
38(11)
Sumerian---the first classical language: Life after death
49(7)
First Interlude: Whatever Happened to Elamite?
56(2)
Akkadian---world-beating technology: A model of literacy
58(10)
Phoenician---commerce without culture: Canaan, and points west
68(10)
Aramaic---the desert song: Interlingua of western Asia
78(8)
Second Interlude: The Shield of Faith
86(7)
Arabic---eloquence and equality: The triumph of 'submission'
93(12)
Third Interlude: Turkic and Persian, Outriders of Islam
105(5)
A Middle Eastern inheritance: The glamour of the desert nomad
110(3)
Triumphs of Fertility: Egyptian and Chinese
113(61)
Careers in parallel
117(5)
Language along the Nile
122(12)
A stately progress
124(2)
Immigrants from Libya and Kush
126(3)
Competition from Aramaic and Greek
129(3)
Changes in writing
132(1)
Final paradoxes
133(1)
Language from Huang-he to Yangtze
134(15)
Origins
134(3)
First Unity
137(3)
Retreat to the south
140(3)
Northern influences
143(3)
Beyond the southern sea
146(1)
Dealing with foreign devils
147(2)
Whys and wherefores
149(5)
Holding fast to a system of writing
154(4)
Foreign relations
158(5)
China's disciples
162(1)
Coping with invasions: Egyptian undercut
163(4)
Coping with invasions: Chinese unsettled
167(7)
Charming Like a Creeper: The Cultured Career of Sanskrit
174(53)
The story in brief
174(6)
The character of Sanskrit
180(15)
Intrinsic qualities
180(5)
Sanskrit in Indian life
185(5)
Outsiders' views
190(5)
The spread of Sanskrit
195(19)
Sanskrit in India
195(4)
Sanskrit in South-East Asia
199(8)
Sanskrit carried by Buddhism: Central and eastern Asia
207(5)
Sanskrit supplanted
212(2)
The charm of Sanskrit
214(8)
The roots of Sanskrit's charm
214(4)
Limiting weaknesses
218(4)
Sanskrit no longer alone
222(5)
Three Thousand Years of Solipsism: The Adventures of Greek
227(45)
Greek at its acme
229(1)
Who is a Greek?
230(4)
What kind of a language?
234(5)
Homes from home: Greek spread through settlement
239(4)
Kings of Asia: Greek spread through war
243(7)
A Roman welcome: Greek spread through culture
250(4)
Mid-life crisis: Attempt at a new beginning
254(3)
Intimations of decline
257(8)
Bactria, Persia, Mesopotamia
257(2)
Syria, Palestine, Egypt
259(2)
Greece
261(2)
Anatolia
263(2)
Consolations in age
265(2)
Retrospect: The life cycle of a classic
267(5)
Contesting Europe: Celt, Roman, German and Slav
272(43)
Reversals of fortune
273(3)
The contenders: Greek and Roman views
276(5)
The Celts
276(1)
The Germans
277(1)
The Romans
278(2)
The Slavs
280(1)
Run: The impulsive pre-eminence of the Celts
281(14)
Traces of Celtic languages
281(2)
How to recognise Celtic
283(1)
Celtic literacy
284(4)
How Gaulish spread
288(4)
The Gauls' advances in the historic record
292(3)
Consilium: The rationale of Roman imperium
295(9)
Mos Maiorum---the Roman way
295(4)
The desertion of Gaulish
299(2)
Latin among the Basques and the Britons
301(3)
Einfall: Germanic and Slavic advances
304(11)
The Germanic invasions---irresistible and ineffectual
304(5)
Slavonic dawn in the Balkans
309(1)
Against the odds: The advent of English
310(5)
The First Death of Latin
315(8)
PART III: LANGUAGES BY SEA
323(200)
The Second Death of Latin
325(6)
Usurpers of Greatness: Spanish in the New World
331(49)
Portrait of a conquistador
331(3)
An unprecedented empire
334(7)
First chinks in the language barrier: Interpreters, bilinguals, grammarians
341(9)
Past struggles: How American languages had spread
348(2)
The spread of Nahuatl
350(23)
The spread of Quechua
355(6)
The spreads of Chibcha, Guarani, Mapudungun
361(3)
The Church's solution: The lenguas generales
364(9)
The state's solution: Hispanizacion
373(4)
Coda: Across the Pacific
377(3)
In the Train of Empire: Europe's Languages Abroad
380(76)
Portuguese pioneers
381(14)
An Asian empire
385(6)
Portuguese in America
391(4)
Dutch interlopers
395(8)
La francophonie
403(18)
French in Europe
404(7)
The first empire
411(5)
The second empire
416(5)
The Third Rome, and all the Russias
421(23)
The origins of Russian
423(4)
Russian east then west
427(5)
Russian north then south
432(5)
The status of Russian
437(4)
The Soviet experiment
441(3)
Conclusions
444(2)
Curiously ineffective---German ambitions
446(3)
Imperial epilogue: Kominka
449(7)
Microcosm or Distorting Mirror? The Career of English
456(67)
Endurance test: Seeing off Norman French
458(10)
English overlaid
460(1)
Spreading the Anglo-Norman package
461(4)
The waning of Norman French
465(3)
Stabilising the language
468(9)
What sort of a language?
474(3)
Westward Ho!
477(19)
Pirates and planters
478(2)
Someone else's land
480(5)
Manifest destiny
485(5)
Winning ways
490(6)
Changing perspective---English in India
496(9)
A merchant venture
496(3)
Protestantism, profit and progress
499(5)
Success, despite the best intentions
504(1)
The world taken by storm
505(18)
An empire completed
505(5)
Wonder upon wonder
510(6)
English among its peers
516(7)
PART IV: LANGUAGES TODAY AND TOMORROW
523(38)
The Current Top Twenty
525(9)
Looking Ahead
534(27)
What is old
534(4)
What is new
538(3)
Way to go
541(8)
Three threads: Freedom, prestige and learnability
549(7)
Freedom
549(1)
Prestige
550(2)
What makes a language learnable
552(4)
Vaster than empires
556(5)
Notes 561(18)
Bibliography 579(12)
Index 591

Excerpts

Empires of the Word
A Language History of the World

Chapter One

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 naturalunit. 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 itwill survive for ever. Genes too, and the species they encode, are immortal; but extinctions are a commonplace of palaeontology. Likewise, the actuallifespans of language communities vary enormously. The annals of languagehistory are full of languages that have died out, traditions that have come toan end, leaving no speakers at all.

The language point of view on history can be contrasted with the geneticapproach to human history, which is currently revolutionising our view of ourdistant past. Like membership in a biological species and a matrilineal lineage,membership in a language community is based on a clear relation. Anindividual 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 necessarilydefines 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.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 nothingmore than a chosen set of properties, whether as in the nineteenth and earlytwentieth centuries by superficial resemblances such as skin colour or cranialproportions, or more recently by blood and tissue groups and sequences ofDNA. Likewise, there are insurmountable problems in defining its culturalanalogue, the nation, which entail the further imponderables of a consciousness of shared history, and perhaps shared language too. 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 onecannot even be sure that it will always be transmitted from one generation tothe next. Some children grow up speaking a language other than their parents'. As we shall soon see, language communities are not always easy tocount, or to distinguish reliably. But they are undeniably real features of thehuman 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 ...

Empires of the Word
A Language History of the World
. Copyright © by Nicholas Ostler. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Excerpted from Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World by Nicholas Ostler
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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