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

(Greek here.)


  1. What’s the Plutarch quote? P is fascinating on language in one of his essays on the oracle.

  2. It’s perfectly fine nowadays to publish bibliographical references to articles in Georgian using the Georgian script: if you can read one, you can read the other. But transliteration (and minority orthographies) have their place: Li & Thompson’s Mandarin Chinese: A Functional Reference Grammar would have been utterly useless, rather than invaluable, to me if it had used standard orthography rather than Pinyin throughout; the famous “nu nindan ezzateni wadar ma kuteni” would be utterly inaccessible in cuneiform; (hypothetical) Indo-Europeanist articles that printed Armenian forms in Armenian script would be the more uninterpretable (and truthfully I wish they’d use Latin transliteration for the Greek forms, too).
    See Nick Nicholas’s excellent page Don’t Proliferate, Transliterate! (part of his Greek Unicode pages for when and why scholars employ consistent transliteration rather than original scripts.

  3. That Nicholas page is indeed excellent—thanks!

  4. John Emerson says

    Chinese script is an inexhaustible source of the kind of problems Nicholas cites. Even between the Ch’in standardization and the Communist reform there are multitudinous difficulties (and many times more outside those limits). On top of that there’s no agreement about transliteration yet.

  5. caffeind says

    The Spanish America section of Ostler had the most original material. The main theme seems to be that survival and expansion of the major indigenous languages was not inevitable but in large part a result of Spanish and Church policies. I knew a little about this but he provides much more detail.
    The Greek section also has a detailed and thoughtful discussion of the factors involved in the rise and eventual fall of Greek as a lingua franca.

  6. injc contlatlauhti, qujlhuj. Totecujoe oticmjhiovilti, oticmociavilti, otlaltitech tommaxitico, oitech tommopachiviltico in Matzin, in motepetzin mexico, oipan tommovetzitico in mopetlatzin, …

    I had something else to track down in v. 12. (Which Google Books doesn’t make it easy to determine is the one, either.) It’s a newer edition, so the English is slightly different. It seems to match this, so I won’t bother typing it.

  7. I want to see books printed with all relevant languages in their proper form.
    The food [eats] column in this week’s Weekly Dig (the alternative alternative free newspaper in Boston) did a roundup of Scallion Pancakes around town. And the author included the Hanzi / Hangul for the various pancakes he tried / discussed.
    Apparently they’re redoing the website, so I can’t link to it online. But it included cong you bing 蔥油餅, pajon 파전, zhua bing 抓餅, and jiu cai he zi 韭菜合子. Since you sometimes see other characters for some of these (葱, 韮, 盒), he may even be recording the way the particular restaurant spells it.

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