How did I miss this? This is what I get for skipping the book review section. Some months ago HarperCollins published Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World, by Nicholas Ostler, and John Derbyshire’s review makes it sound like a must-read:
Nicholas Ostler is a professional linguist and currently chairman of the Foundation for Endangered Languages. His loving fascination with languages is plain on every page of Empires of the Word, and in the many careful transcriptions — each with a brief pronunciation guide and a translation — of passages from Nahuatl, Chinese, Akkadian, and a host of other tongues. Ostler actually has a feel for languages that, he has convinced me, goes into something beyond the merely subjective…
The story he tells — the story of the languages of human civilization — is illustrated with dozens of maps, as a book of this sort ought to be, as well as a scattering of drawings and photographs. After a brief introductory section, the narrative divides into three parts. The first describes the spread of languages, mainly by land, from the remotest past up to the Middle Ages. The second covers the last half-millennium, when European languages planted themselves all over the world, carried mainly by sea (Russian being the chief exception here). In a short final section, Ostler surveys the current language map, and offers some speculations about the future.
The first section is the longest and contains much material likely to be unfamiliar to the average reader. It begins with the story of the Semitic languages, from Akkadian through Aramaic and Phoenician to Hebrew and Arabic. The main points of interest here are the odd lingering prestige of Sumerian long after Sumer as a political force had ceased to exist; the replacement of Akkadian, a firmly established bureaucratic-imperial language, by Aramaic, a nomad dialect from the desert fringes; and the dramatically different fortunes of sister-languages Phoenician and Hebrew. From the second of those points, Ostler extracts the surprising but true principle that “the life and death of languages are in principle detached from the political fortunes of their associated states.” He confronts, and refutes, the theory that Aramaic won out over Akkadian because of its superior, alphabetic, writing system, assigning the true cause to Assyrian population policy.
And here‘s an interview with Ostler, who sure had a better experience with Sanskrit than I did. (Thanks for the link, Joan!)