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