Babble On : Nicholas Ostler – “Empires of the Word : A Language History of the World”

“Who was ever silenced like Tyre, surrounded by the sea?”– Ezekiel, 27 : 32

ABOVE: Word Up and Down

What silences a language? Conversely, what turns a particular set of sounds into a country’s enduring  standard of communication? Nicholas Ostler’s “Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World” tries to untangle the twisted routes of linguistic expansion, concentrating on dozens of the most successful tongues as they evolved through time. Akkadian, Aramaic, Arabic. Mandarin, Swahili. Spanish, English. Indo-European, Afro-Semitic. Latin and Greek and Farsi. Ostler doesn’t just ask the seemingly unsolvable questions of “What makes the spread of languages a success? Is it religious imposition? Military might? Economic trends? Ease of usage?” Ostler also offers the best available answers, even if  they’re ones that would not surprise the wiser lovers of history: “All of the above. None of the above. It depends.”

The tale behind the world’s polyphonic proliferation stands in contrast to the Biblical myth of the Tower of Babel, (inspired by the understandable, xenophobic discomfort that Hebrew exiles experience in that cosmopolitan maze.) Humans didn’t separate because they spoke different  languages. They spoke different languages BECAUSE they separated. Ostler points out the anti-Babylonian Biblical myth is doubly off the mark given that, in almost unprecedented and rarely duplicated manner, the Babylonian government heavily enforced the official language, Akkadian, for over two thousand years.

ABOVE: “Ok, that’s it, I don’t understand these construction workers, we’re calling it quits.”

ABOVE: Tablet ( Version .000001.)

5,000 years of history follow, with dozens of major languages treated like heroic characters in a historical saga: emerging from nomadic obscurity, overcoming odds, and sometimes dwindling with the inevitability of a Greek tragedy. Inevitably, the book comes around to the role played by English, the world’s current powerhouse. (More people speak Chinese – but as a native language, within the confines of China.) It is hardly a thing to feel secure about, and English speakers would do well to check our hubris: French, which was only a century ago the preferred “lingua franca,” (notice the root of the second word) is now only slightly more spoken than Urdu, (a fact my high school French teacher failed to stress.)

Revealing and though provoking as “Empire of the Word” can be, it suffers slightly due to the dry stylistic choices, the general repetitiveness of expansion patterns, the density of geographical detail, and the linguistic annotations that will puzzle and/or bore the uninitiated: “The lower-Bactrian dialect of the second millennium B.C. lacked the glottal stop of the feminine suffixes as in -‘tzk or -‘jku, (contractions of ‘arutzk’ and ‘punjku’) as well as the ending nominative of the conjunctive fricative found in the ‘zkt sound of the latter-upper-Bactrian term ‘zktuzkt.'”

SURE, if you say so! This was a perfect under-the-hood complement to Peter Watson’s much more entertaining “Ideas.”

RATING: COOL! for content, GOOD ENOUGH for narrative drive.


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