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Ladies and gentlemen, I’m so excited to introduce what is sure to be the most amazing book ever written: Empires of the Word. Written by author, David Crystal, Empires of the Word takes us on an incredible journey through time and space to explore the history of language across the world. Where did it come from? How did it change? How can we use it to better understand ourselves and our place in the universe?
The first chapter alone is worth more than any other book that’s out there on the subject. It’s not just a compelling story; it’s a journey through time that gives you a new way of looking at human civilization. It deconstructs our common misconceptions about language—for example, that English is a “young” language—and provides new insights into how language has developed over thousands of years.
Empires of the Word should be required reading for anyone who wants to know more about how we communicate and how we came together as a species.
Empires of the Word a Language History of the World Pdf
History is a lot more fascinating when viewed through the spread of various languages and cultures.
The author here presents his case for the importance of languages in the human history. The distinctive traits of various languages and how they are central to the formation of societies and their role in defining their cultures.
After a brief introduction on the nature of language history, the first half of the book deals with the language spread by land. Starting with the mesopotamian languages of Sumerian, Akkadian, Aramaic and Arabic. It then goes on to the rise and fall of sanskrit in India, of latin and Greek in Europe and the spread of Chinese and Egyptian.
Sevond half of the book deals with the spread of the European languages by the sea, starting with Portuguese, spanish, dutch,French and then English.
The final section deals with the current state of the most spoken languages in the world and some speculation regarding their future.
This is a richly detailed work that goes through the rise and fall of more than a dozen of the world’s most influential languages while investigating the factors involved in their growth and death.
Filled with a lot of anecdotes in their original languages and some detailed descriptions of the structures of various languages, this is not an easy and fast read but is very fascinating and enjoyable.
Not a fun book, nor an easy book, and not well edited. But maybe the most illuminating world history book that I have ever read. A hell of a lot more credible than Guns Germs and Steel. You get used to learning the history of the world through the lens of empire. It makes more sense when you understand what kinds of languages people were speaking.
All the same family: Akkadian (Sumerian), Phoenician, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic. 3500 years with surprisingly gradual change.
Kurdish is a Persian language, part of the Indo-European language group.
Sanskrit, Persian (Farsi), and Arabic are all admired for being poetic.
The Turkic language group is spoken by a group that extends today in broad, straight path from Turkey to the border or Mongolia.
Romance languages include all of the obvious countries, plus (duh!): Romania.
Finnish is related to Hungarian, and nothing else.
The Greek language continued to thrive for more than 1000 years largely because it was held in esteem by learned Romans.
The Germanic languages don’t have a good success rate.
English seems strong today, but in historic terms, it probably won’t last too long on top.
So, a painful book, but here I am, reading it again already.
Easily one of the most intensely researched popular science books I’ve ever read (it’s right up there with Jared Diamond’s works in terms of endless footnotes and works cited), this is an impressively sweeping overview of the history of a dozen of the world’s major languages and language families that manages to be interesting even when he’s talking about stuff like the developmental similarities between Chinese and ancient Egyptian, or how people decided to use ancient languages like Akkadian and Sanskrit as lingua francas, or why Dutch didn’t catch on as a colonial language. I personally find language history and usage fascinating (nerd alert), so maybe not everyone will find this book as cool as I did, but this was one of those books where I learned something new on basically every page and enjoyed doing it. Ostler’s ability to synthesize vast amounts of research is awe-inspiring, and his obvious love for certain languages (he has a real crush on Sanskrit, in particular) carries over to the subject material in ways that only the best authors manage. He has some really interesting insights on all sorts of things, like why Germanic tribes managed to conquer half the Roman Empire but didn’t impose their languages anywhere whereas the Arab conquests only a few hundred years later led to permanent linguistic change across almost all of their territories, and his ending discussion of the evolution and future of English is probably worth the price of the book right there.
Ostler has created a history of all of humanity, in so much as such a thing can be achieved in a single volume, on a basis unlike any other I have encountered. His Empires are those of the mind, and I would hazard that they reveal more about us than the more superficial customary treatments of kings and armies. Language is the tie that binds us and forms our minds and societies, and by viewing the ebb and flow of its empires we glimpse the flow not merely of peoples and levers of power but of the very bedrock of our powers of expression. We see the flow of conceptual frameworks and the means of expressing and constraining them.
There are 6,000-odd languages in the world, grouped into a hierarchy of families, with possibly half in danger of extinction within a generation or two. Apart from the loss of potentially valuable diversity and the lessons about the human mind that will be lost with these languages and their associated conceptual frameworks, this highlights that a handful of languages have expanded or persisted across continents and millennia. These languages have built empires. Ostler’s quest is to understand how a language comes to be an empire-builder rather than a linguistic eddy in a tributary. What languages have survived millennia or have spread across continents, and why? The answers seem to have less to do with the unique qualities of the language than you might think, and less to do with military or commercial dominance.
Literacy has proved a potent cultural weapon, of course. The very fact of being able to write enables a culture to take on a sense of itself across time and space. A culture which can write can send orders for spices across oceans and orders to march across continents. A culture which can write can remember more than can be taught to a single mind, and can still remember it when the mind dies. A culture that can write becomes both more unified and potentially more organised in many ways. This enables it to overrun others. The potential to overrun others is not the benison to a language that one might think, though. Invaders such as the Germanic tribes have dominated swathes of a continent, such as historic Gaul, and then left hardly a trace of their tongue across much of the area. Cultures can write and thereby teach their neighbours … to write. An alphabet can leap cultural boundaries and leave a language dying in its wake, taking on a life of its own. An ideographic system can offer nearly insurmountable obstacles to learning and yet, like Chinese, its very abstraction from the phonetic nature of the language can enable it to serve and persist as the medium of transmission for mutually unintelligible dialects. The secret of why English, Latin, Egyptian or Chinese can become an empire, or why it can then fade, is no facile single-factor recipe.
The odd piece of entertainment surprises the alert mind now and again. Akkadian and Sumerian, the earliest scripts spoken in Babylon and the fertile Crescent, were Semitic languages written in a script called cuneiform, which was pressed into clay tablets. These tablets were sometimes fired, but for economic reasons large volumes of text, such as records of state, were simply dried and stacked in libraries. When the administrators were overturned and the cities sacked in the fall of this civilisation, these libraries acquired the distinction of being the only ones in history to have been preserved by arson!
Ostler deals with English towards the end, and gives reasons, which deserve thought, as to why it may not be a thousand-year empire. While successful now through its prestige in the former British Empire and its strong linkage with science and technology, it is increasingly becoming primarily a second language while first-language speakers gradually become less of a majority in their own countries. English achieved what some other European colonial languages did not in that it became a symbol of achievement in the colonies for educated natives. Elsewhere it simply replaced native languages as the natives were driven to or near to extinction. In the Americas and Australasia the native populations were devastated and English-speakers took over the land. Indeed, the willingness to stay and farm rather than merely seek treasure is partly what distinguishes English as an empire-builder. Elsewhere the climate, less condign, discouraged European farmers with their temperate crops and lack of malaria-resistance. In these places, English tended to become an elite language, and it remains a language of aspiration to this day. It may not always remain so. The status of second language is precarious.
This is a wonderful book. Accessible and largely non-technical, it is illustrated by the swirls and curlicues of the languages with which it treats, but does not require of the reader to master the scripts or the grammar. A highly readable and thoroughly entertaining piece of education awaits the reader.
About Empires of the Word Pdf Author
Nicholas Ostler is a British scholar and author. Ostler studied at Balliol College, Oxford, where he received degrees in Greek, Latin, philosophy, and economics. He later studied under Noam Chomsky at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he earned his Ph.D. in linguistics and Sanskrit.
His 2005 book Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World documents the spread of language throughout recorded human history.
His 2007 book Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin looks specifically at the language of the Romans, both before and after the existence of their Empire. The story focuses on the rise, spread, and dominance of Latin, both among other languages of the Italian peninsula in the early part of the 1st millennium BC and among the languages of Western Europe in the Dark Ages and beyond, presenting the life of Latin as any biographer would present the life of his subject. With this book, Ostler provides a strong argument against the label ‘dead language’ so often assigned to Latin. However, the title, ‘Ad Infinitum,’ refers not to this, but to his thesis that the Latin-speaking world was unconscious of its own limits, looking always back to its centre, rather than outwards.
He is currently the chairman of the Foundation for Endangered Languages, and lives in Bath, England.