Linguist Nicholas Ostler would appear to be that singular type of British scholar who combines daunting erudition with an equal measure of eccentricity (one of the two dozen or so languages he knows is Chibcha, an ancient South American tongue). It takes a fertile and curious mind to produce an impressive linguistic survey like Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World, a weighty (in both senses) study of how languages have spread, survived or collapsed over the course of the last 5,000 years. As its subtitle suggests, this is grand-scale history the story of invasions, empires, colonization, wars of religion, international trade, immigration and plagues refracted through the prism of the languages spoken by the victors and the conquered.
Ostler tells us that languages are spread in three ways. Migration, where a language community moves in substantial numbers to a new place, is what happened in the United States, where English settlers supplanted the many pre-Columbian natives. India, where a relatively small number managed to introduce widespread use of their language, is an instance of Diffusion. Infiltration, a combination of the two, took place in countries such as South Africa.
As Ostler takes in the sweep of languages from ancient Sumerian and Akkadian to modern English and Mandarin, he focuses most interestingly on instances where languages defied the odds. Egyptian and Chinese, for example, both survived centuries of invasions and conquests by foreign speakers. Egyptian eventually succumbed to the upstart Arabic, but only after the fervent spread of Islam. Chinese is still going strong. Whereas English swept the Indian subcontinent, a similar trade-based colonial presence by the Dutch in Indonesia failed to leave its linguistic mark. Why did the Latin-derived Romance languages survive in Western Europe even after the Germanic-speaking hordes laid claim to the territory in the fifth century, while Latin made no headway in Greece and the eastern Mediterranean? The reasons, Ostler shows, are many and varied, but one deciding factor is how structurally similar the new language is to the old, making it easy or hard to assimilate (which may explain why Arabic did not replace Persian in Iran, despite the national conversion to Islam). Also, while military conquest or economic domination often introduces a new language into an established language community, in most cases it takes long-term immigration or the collapse of the native population to give the new language a foothold (witness the indigenous cultures of Latin America wiped out by the diseases brought to their shores by Europeans). Then there are examples such as Brazil, where Portuguese had a presence for 300 years but didn't become the dominant language until a gold rush in the 1790s brought swarms of new speakers.
Perhaps the most surprising element of Empires of the Word are Ostler's predictions about what the future holds. He says we are in the midst of a crisis of language endangerment, with arguably half of the world's 6,000 languages threatened with extinction within a generation. And he wonders if the death of these languages will result in a loss in diversity of consciousness and identity. For English speakers, who may assume that the increasing world dominance of our language will continue indefinitely, he offers a sobering counterview. English has already peaked demographically. Predications are that by 2050, English, Hindi-Urdu, Spanish and Arabic will be spoken around the globe in fairly equal numbers, with Chinese spoken by 2.5 times more people than each of them. But English and Chinese will by then be the languages of the older generation, with Arabic taking the lead among the young.
Of course there is really nothing to be done about this linguistic evolution, despite the efforts of alarmists who try to legislate an official language. If Empires of the Word tells us anything, it is that languages have lives all their own, often defying the expected patterns. In Ostler's words, they are vaster than empires, not yielding to history, but working as a defining force of that history. Linguaphiles and history buffs should find much to ponder in this fascinatingly original book. Robert Weibezahl is attempting to learn Italian, despite its dwindling status among world languages.