Nicholas Ostler is one of LH’s favorite authors of language books; I enthused about his Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World in this post and about his Ad Infinitum in this one. Now Walker, the publisher, has sent me his latest, The Last Lingua Franca: English Until the Return of Babel, and I’m enjoying it just as much. If you’re still looking for a Christmas gift for a language lover (who might be yourself), add it to your list.
I should start by pointing out that the Big Idea of the book—the question of whether English will continue to dominate the world as it does now and if not, what will replace it—is not of great interest to me. I mean, I’m curious, of course, just as I am about how the world will end, but we’ll find out about each when the time arrives, and in the meantime, speculation is basically navel-gazing. It’s great for late-night bull sessions, but is not to be taken seriously, any more than the many “Iran [or other Currently Prominent Phenomenon]: Threat or Menace?” op-eds that fill the broadsheets. Fortunately, Ostler is incapable of writing an extended op-ed; his interest, like mine, is in the details… or, as Deborah Cameron puts it from the other side of the fence in her review in The Guardian: “The Last Lingua Franca is not the easiest of reads: Ostler does not have the populariser’s gift for uncluttered storytelling, and is apt to pile up details without much regard for what the non-specialist either needs to know or is capable of retaining.” Different strokes, as they say. So let’s get to the details.
Ostler starts by distinguishing the use of languages, and English in particular, as native tongues from their use as lingua francas (or, as he irritatingly insists on spelling it, “lingua-francas”—punctuation is not his strong suit). This is an important distinction that is not often taken as seriously as Ostler takes it, and one of the things he does throughout the book is hammer home the implications in various situations. In the Preface he writes, “But when English is seen as a lingua franca [N.b.: he's also not consistent], it becomes possible to compare it with many languages that had this function to a greater or lesser extent in the past. What forces spread them, and how did they fare in the long term?” This (to me) is the meat of the book and the most interesting part, especially the chapters on Persian, though of course others will skim it in hopes of getting an answer about the future of English. He then goes on to look at “language politics in the modern world” and try to figure out where things are going from here.
Since what delights me about Ostler’s books are the piquant and unpredictable details, let me cite a few of them here. On page 11, in discussing the language policies of Malaysia, he quotes a Malay sentence: “Bahasa jiwa bangsa, as they liked to claim: ‘Language is the soul of the nation’.” It’s always nice to get a sentence in the local language, but the great thing is the footnote: “This is a simple sentence in Malay, but all its words are derived from Sanskrit: bhāṣā jīvanam vaṃśaḥ ‘speech-life-stock’. This reflects the influence of Indian traders and adventurers in the early first millennium AD. Malay’s roots are ancient, but they are not purely indigenous.” He can’t resist that sort of sidelight, and neither can I.
On page 40, a footnote to a discussion of the divergence of Nahuatl dialects into different languages after Spanish was made the only official language in 1770 gives some striking examples: “‘He is not at home’ is expressed as x-aak in Guerrero, amo-hka in Tezcoco, am-iga in Morelos, amo yetok in Puebla Sierra, and mach nikaan kah in Vera Cruz. In Classical Nahuatl, this would have been expressed as amo i-chaan-ko (kah), literally ‘not his-home-at (is)’.” (However, he doesn’t actually call them different languages, saying rather “at least nineteen quite different forms, according to systematic tests of mutual intelligibility” and adding, “Some doubt whether [such tests] should be followed in total oblivion of Nahuatl’s common cultural past”; he takes the same, to me reprehensibly unscientific, squishy approach to the question of whether Chinese and Arabic are one language or many. Politicians have to let politics bend their view of reality, but it’s a sad business when non-politicians do the same thing.)
On page 49 he casually mentions Russenorsk, “used in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries among Russian and Norwegian traders on the arctic shores of Siberia”; I had never heard of it, and it’s so obscure there’s only one sentence on it in the Encyclopedia of the Languages of Europe, but it turns out somebody’s written a nice little Wikipedia article on it, with bibliography. And on page 98 he tosses in a reference to the Tajik family name Shansabani, “which seems to be derived (consider the consonants!) from the Pahlavi name Wišnasb“: hey, cool!
But even better are the careful explanations of difficult or unexpected situations. On page 86, for example, he quotes Ibn al-Muqaffa’ as distinguishing “five languages (besides Arabic) in Iran,” of which three are varieties of Persian: Pahlavi is said to be “the language of Isfahan, Hamadan, Nehavand, and Azerbaijan,” Dari “of the court … but also of the Sassanian capital city (Ctesiphon, on the Tigris), ‘though in Khorasan … the best Dari is heard in Balkh,” and Parsi “the language of Fars … but also of the mowhed Zoroastrian priests.” He says this tripartite division “is somewhat confusing since the accepted analysis of historical Persian only distinguished two (similar) main dialects over the preceding millennium: viz, Median (later, Parthian) in the northeast, and Old Persian (later, Pārsīg or Middle Persian) in the southwest. … But Gilbert Lazard (1993) has quite convincingly [explained that Parsi] is understood as traditional Persian…, Pahlavī had originally meant ‘Parthian’, and this may be what it means here, since the cities are about right for ancient Media…. Meanwhile, Darī refers in effect to New Persian: despite its title, this is the new, predominantly colloquial, version of the language, coming through in the capital but also out to the east.”
And his explanation of how Elamite was used by Persians after they had conquered Elam (now Khuzistan) was a real eye-opener for me. I had known they used it officially for proclamations and such, but I was thinking of it as comparable to the Romans using Greek, or everybody in nineteenth-century Europe using French—languages they themselves knew. Not so: “Persians indeed early made a virtue of illiteracy…. When a Persian needed to send written communication or to store records, it was done for him in Elamite, this being the beginning of alloglottography (writing down Persian by the use of some other language), which was to continue in Persia … for the next millennium… This did not mean that Elamite was widely learned, or even heard, by Persians. Rather Elamite-Persian bilinguals would be employed to use their writing skills, protecting their employers from the disconcerting experience of an unknown language by routinely translating the texts on request into, or out of, spoken Persian.”
Well, I could go on, but you probably have a sense by now of whether you’d like the book. If you want to know the future of English, you’ll have to read it—no spoilers here! Me, I think it’s a blast, and I look forward to Ostler’s next excursion into the multifarious history of the world’s languages.