The Rise and Fall of the World's Languages ; Language Is the Handiwork of Billions of People and Perhaps the Greatest Creation of Mankind

Article excerpt

One of the surprises in the three years that I've been the copy desk chief for this newspaper has been the amount of evidence, in reader mail and elsewhere, of keen interest in language and its uses and abuses.

The past few months have seen a flurry of new books on language that will be useful to all sorts of people interested in improving their own writing and speaking. But this year's spring/summer crop also includes two broad linguistic overviews, one geographic/ historical and the other thematic/conceptual, that will advance readers' understanding not just of words and usage but of Language with a capital L.

Nicholas Ostler's "Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World," well over 600 pages with its notes, index, bibliography, and numerous maps, will be the more ambitious read for the amateur linguaphile. But it will be well worth the effort if the goal is to understand the broad sweep of human language around the planet.

Ostler describes his work as a study of what he calls "language dynamics," the rise and fall, the advance and retreat, of languages across the map and the forces behind these changes: cultural prestige, trade, military conquest, religious proselytizing.

It is a work of immense erudition, surveying world's major languages, starting with the Sumerians of the Euphrates valley and concluding with the contemporary hegemony of English. He certainly takes the long view: the 5,000-year-long view, in fact. By the time he mentions the founding of the French Academy, under Richelieu in 1635, that date seems like the day before yesterday.

He finds that what makes a language "successful," in an almost Darwinian sense (he writes about languages as if they were organisms), is less its inherent ease or difficulty and more other factors, such as cultural prestige or the circumstances under which a new tongue is introduced to a community. British colonists in North America, for instance, were much more successful at spreading their language than were their French counterparts because the British came as families. French settlers, by contrast, tended to be single men who went native, rather than passing French on to their children.

Even more than for its strictly linguistic insights, "Empires of the Word" may be useful for its broader observations.

Of the Semitic peoples, Ostler notes, "They never escaped the memory that they had all arisen from desert nomads," and goes on to say, "Nomads may be hard to find in the modern Semitic world. But aspects of nomadism are still central to the unsolved problems of the Arabs: the homelessness of the Palestinians, the moral queasiness about the unearned riches welling up from the desert wastes of Arabia, and wild men of al-Qa'eda in self-imposed exile while they plan destruction for the iniquitous cities. In all this, speakers of Arabic are very true to their tradition. Indeed, the histories of Akkadian, Phoenicians, Aramaic and Arabic are a five- thousand-year demonstration of the benefits of the desert - as a place to come in from."

In "The Unfolding of Language: an evolutionary tour of mankind's greatest invention," Guy Deutscher doesn't mention all the buzz nowadays about "the intelligence of crowds," about "networked" social insects, or other phenomena suggesting that great things can be accomplished without a single mastermind in charge. But he could have.

"Language is mankind's greatest invention - except, of course, that it was never invented," he writes. …