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!)


  1. Gods! “How did you miss this”? Are you saying you regularly read Derb @ National Review?
    Let me quote Samizdata Illuminatus: “Any moment now I fully expect to see a flock of pigs flying past my window!”

  2. I heard of it some time ago, and I’ve been meaning to read it. But I haven’t, so far, so I can’t tell you whether it’s any good. What I can tell you is that I really like the cover art on the British edition. You can get an idea from the amazon.co.uk picture here, although the resolution isn’t high enough to read much, and half the world’s on the back cover.

  3. Ooh, that is nice!

  4. Mr Emerson, you are responsible for me spraying my monitor with coffee.
    The book goes straight on the wishlist.

  5. oh, Mr.Emerson and his problems. But I promised not to say a word.

  6. Tatyana, we’re all aware that your penis is more than adequately large.

  7. Now, now, boys and girls, we’re talking language here, not… paraphernalia.

  8. Wha? I din’t say nutn!

  9. Me neither. I just splaughed (a combination of laughing and splattering).

  10. Dammit, I just accidentally deleted John’s hilarious comment along with a bunch of spam. John, if you can reconstruct it, please do. It was very very funny, and the rest of this thread doesn’t make much sense without it.

  11. Yes, please repeat. It’s a bit tricky to reconstruct, but I think it must have been a vulgar analogy to the map of the world.

  12. I can remember the comment pretty well, so I’m sure the author can reconstruct it. The google cache for this page doesn’t have it, but does currently have the spam it was in reply to.

  13. Thanks for that hint, Tim; here’s the spam:
    Learn English in the lap of nature. Visit http://www.[spam site]/learn_english.htm
    Posted by: l1ttlewood at November 9, 2005 02:18 AM
    If John doesn’t drop by to reconstruct his comment, perhaps we can work it out among us? (Of course, the -i- will have to be strategically replaced with a -1-, as I just did, or the spam catcher will reject it.)

  14. L1ttlewood: Thanks, but I’m already fluent in English. My problem is that my penis is too small.

  15. I made a comment, but it went the way of John’s first one.

  16. How strange — normally if the spam blocker has a problem, you can’t comment at all. I’ve never seen a blank comment before. If you’ll e-mail me the comment, I’ll try to post it myself.

  17. It has lost its freshness if it ever had any. It was (had to be) in angled brackets and was ‘retrospective giggle’. (I had rejected a draft comment along the lines of ‘No penis is too small if you’re in the lap of nature’).

  18. You have to use HTML entities rather than typing in the brackets themselves; the left bracket is lt (less than), the right gt (greater than), each between & and ;, thus:
    <retrospective giggle>

  19. I’d forgotten that this was the thread with that joke. Anyway, I got a copy of Empires of the Word for my birthday; I’ll post my impressions here once I’ve finished. And I’ll see if I can get the cover scanned at a reasonable resolution and put it up, so you can get a closer look.

  20. Please do!

Speak Your Mind