Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World

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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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About the Author:

A scholar with a working knowledge of twenty-six languages, Nicholas Ostler has degrees from Oxford University in Greek, Latin, philosophy, and economics, and a Ph.D. in linguistics from MIT, where he studied under Noam Chomsky. He lives in Bath, England.

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*Starred Review* Caesar led his legions into battle for the glory of Rome--and the immortality of Greek. In the curious spread of Greek through Roman conquest, Ostler recounts one of the many fascinating episodes in the complex history of languages. The resources of the cultural historian complement those of the comparative linguist in this capacious work, which sets the parameters for a new field of scholarship: "language dynamics." By peering over Ostler's shoulder into this new field, readers learn how languages ancient and modern (Sumerian and Egyptian; Spanish and English) spread and how they dwindle. The raw force of armies counts, of course, in determining language fortunes but for far less than the historically naive might suppose: military might failed to translate into lasting linguistic conquest for the Mongols, Turks, or Russians. Surprisingly, trade likewise proves weak in spreading a language--as the Phoenician and Dutch experiences both show. In contrast, immigration and fertility powerfully affect the fate of languages, as illustrated by the parallel histories of Egyptian and Chinese. Ostler explores the ways modern technologies of travel and communication shape language fortunes, but he also highlights the power of ancient faiths--Christian and Moslem, Buddhist and Hindu--to anchor language traditions against rapid change. Of particular interest will be Ostler's provocative conjectures about a future in which Mandarin or Arabic take the lead or in which English fractures into several tongues. Few books bring more intellectual excitement to the study of language. Bryce Christensen
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