Book reviews

A decent book

By Nicholas Ostler

Publisher: HarperCollins

ISBN: 0007118708

Year: 2005

Pages: 624 Hardback

Historical linguist Nicholas Ostler presents herein an in-depth and comprehensive biography of the world’s languages—a story that has been little told; making this book one of a few in this genre (see also ‘Dictionary of Languages’ by Andrew Dalby). Thought provoking and eloquently written, Ostler takes the reader on a 615 page journey through all the continents of the world, and details their language histories going back 5000 years. The book begins with a chapter on the epic encounter between Hermen Cortes, the Spanish coloniser, and Motecuhzoma (Montezuma), the then king of Mexico; the former speaking Spanish and the latter Nahuatl, and the subsequent language explosion that occurred as a result. The author then goes on to discuss the languages of the desert: Sumerian, Akkadian and Aramaic (as well as others), and the triumph of the latter over the former; and the incredible victory of Arabic—its Semitic cousin—over all languages of the region and beyond, so creating the linguistic situation lasting till today. The language of Islam even managed to uproot Egyptian, a language that survived foreign takeovers for three millennia. The ‘uncanny resilience’ of Chinese through twenty centuries of invasions is discussed through exhaustive analyses, as well as the ‘charmed progress’ of Sanskrit from North India to Java and Japan, the ‘engaging self regard’ of Greek which accompanied the spread of Hellenism between 334-325 BC from Macedonia through Egypt to present day Pakistan, finally yielding to the power of Rome in 146 BC; thus coalescing to make the Graeco-Roman culture that have given birth to the languages of modern Europe and the later global spread of English. Yet, presently, Greek and Latin are shielded by mere Orthodox liturgy and little else. Conquest, re-conquest, religious proselytisation, economic power, migration, population growth etc. are all discussed and evaluated vis-à-vis languages’ rise and fall, and why some take root and others wither.

Ostler’s analyses delve much deeper than most works in the genre; he aims to open up a whole new avenue of historical study, where “language dynamics” are a tool for social analysis. He also demonstrates the ‘inward history’ of languages; ‘a language community is not just a group marked out by its use of a particular language: it is an evolving community…[a] language brings with it a mass of perceptions, clichés, judgments…[i]n some sense, then, when one language replaces another, a peoples view of the world must also be changing’ [1]. Hence, the inextricable links between language and culture are continually re-asserted by Ostler throughout his work.And this is what Ostler devotes much of his introduction to, concluding that the spread of languages may seldom be reversible, but it is never stable: he predicts a turn in the fortunes of English very soon. In fact, he cites one intelligent estimate [2] that predicts that by 2050 English, Hindi-Urdu, Spanish and Arabic should be just about on par, with Chinese still exceeding by a factor of 2.5. English and Chinese will then be predominantly the language of older people, Arabic of the young and Spanish, Hindi-Urdu of the in-between.

In his chapter ‘the current top twenty’ Ostler divides Arabic up into different languages citing their mutual unintelligibility as proof for doing so. Yet, when it comes to English he represents it as one over-arching lingua franca; even though Singlish (Singapore English), Hawaiin pidgin English, as well as others, have their own respective dictionaries and are themselves mutually unintelligible—our esteemed lingua franca is not as standardised as we may assume it to be. Moreover, other studies (e.g. ethnologue) have not made this distinction and rank Arabic as a single hyper-language community being fourth in the world. Ostler on the other hand ranks Egyptian Arabic as twenty third, casting ‘Arabics’ as distinct languages.

I love this book—that is because I am crazy about languages and their effects on people (and vice versa). But even if you are not a language freak like me, this gem is great just to pick up and read with some amazing facts and stories to educate and share—615pp but well worth the shelf space.


1. Chapter 2, p. 13.

2. The ‘engco’ model.

Categories: Book reviews, Language

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