This is the first of what will doubtless be numerous reports on Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World (see this post for background). I’ve only read the prologue, and I’m already thrilled. It starts off “On 8 November 1519 Hernán Cortés and a band of three hundred Spaniards met for the first time the supreme ruler of Mexico.” Ostler sets the scene, the ruler of a great empire in his finery confronting the bearded newcomer, and says “Then Motecuhzoma, whose official title was tlatoani, ‘speaker’, returned to greet his guests… Their words set the tone for all that was to follow… It was the first step towards the replacement of Nahuatl as the imperial language of Mexico, and the progress of Spanish towards its establishment as the language first of government and religion and then of everything else in the New World. Motecuhzoma opened with a flowery speech in Nahuatl…” So far, so good: a famous moment dramatizing a turning point in the history of language. Then you turn the page and find that all excerpts from the speech are given in Nahuatl as well as in English translation!
Totēukyoe, ōtikmihiyōwiltih ōtikmoziyawiltih.
Our Lord, how you must have suffered, how fatigued you must be.
After the first couple of excerpts, he gives the Nahuatl in footnotes, but it’s all there, in “a convenient form of romanised spelling” based on linguistic analysis rather than simply reproducing the inconsistent (and of course hispanicized) transcription of Bernardino de Sahagún. Compare the snippet shown in the right column here (“[first line illegible: thanks, Google snippet view!]…oipan tommovetzitico in mopetlatzin, in mocpaltzin, in oachitzinca njmjtzōnopielili, in onjmjtzonnotlapielili…”) to the semi-rationalized version here (499. *oitech*. oitech tommopachihuiltico in matzin, in motepetzin mexico, oipan tommohuetzitico in mopetlatzin, in mocpaltzin, in huachitzinca nimitzonnopielili, in onimitzonnotlapielili…”) and Ostler’s version (h represents the glottal stop): “ō īteč tommopāčiwiltīko in mātzin in motepētzin, Mešihco, ō īpan tommowetziko in mopetlatzin, in mokpaltzin, in ō ačitzinka nimitzonnopiyalīlih, in ōnimitzonnotlapiyalīlih…” (‘you have approached your water, your high place of Mexico, you have come down to your mat, your throne, which I have briefly kept for you, I who used to keep it for you’). The account of Cortés’s response is, of course, given in both English and Spanish. And the epigraph to Part I (The Nature of Language History) is a quote from Plutarch, given in both Greek and English. Like Helen DeWitt, I want to see books printed with all relevant languages in their proper form, and I see no reason why this cannot be done with today’s techonology. I’m sure it was a nightmare getting the Ostler book typeset (and I think I caught a mistake in the Nahuatl: shouldn’t “tommowetziko” be “tommowetzitīko”?), but it’s a shining example of what can and should be accomplished.
Addendum. Conrad quite rightly asks what Plutarch passage is quoted; it’s the one where Themistocles compares language to carpets:
[King Xerxes] gave Themistocles leave to speak his mind freely on Greek affairs. Themistocles replied that the speech of man was like rich carpets, the patterns of which can only be shown by spreading them out; when the carpets are folded up, the patterns are obscured and lost; and therefore he asked for time. The king was pleased with the simile, and told him to take his time; and so he asked for a year. Then, having learned the Persian language sufficiently, he spoke with the king on his own…
Plutarch, Themistocles, 29.5