THIS BOOK opens with what its author calls a 'pioneering moment of fatal impact' when " in a dramatic encounter on the causeway across a lake in Mexico " Hernan Cortes met Montezuma and, after they exchanged compliments in their respective tongues, began his colonisation.
Other events might have served Nicholas Ostler's purpose just as well in his 'language history of the world': Captain Cook meeting the Aboriginals in Queensland, or an Indian setting foot on Cambodian soil in the first century AD, thus transplanting Sanskrit into South-east Asia. In each case, he says, one language-community irrupted into another, and the course of history was changed.
Ostler aims to open a new avenue of historical analysis, where 'language dynamics' becomes a tool for the study of societies. Language-communities, he argues, are bigger players on the world stage than princes and statesmen. He quotes Bismarck, asked in 1898 to name a defining event in recent history, and replying 'North America speaks English'. The alliances which shaped 20th-century history were one long vindication of those words.
Ostler looks at languages' rise and fall, at why some take root and others wither. He demolishes the assumption that military and economic power is the key. Why, he asks, did Sogdian " the language of the powerful Silk Road merchants " never take root? Why, after 500 years of Roman rule, …