Thursday, September 15, 2005

Empires Of The Word

John Derbyshire reviews Nicholas Ostler's Empires of the Word : A Language History of the World. "A marvelous book, learned and instructive" he concludes; likely worth checking out.

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. He speaks of “some of the distinctive traits of the various traditions: Arabic’s austere grandeur and egalitarianism; Chinese and Egyptian’s unshakeable self-regard; Sanskrit’s luxuriating classifications and hierarchies; Greek’s self-confident innovation leading to self-obsession and pedantry; Latin’s civic sense; Spanish rigidity, cupidity, and fidelity; French admiration for rationality; and English admiration for business acumen.”

We ... get an illuminating comparative study of two great introverted imperial systems, Egypt and China, and their languages, with the startling conclusion — the supporting argument is too complex to summarize — that “the long-term future of the Chinese language may be hanging in the balance.” On to Sanskrit, for which the author nurses a particular affection, and which he describes as “eminently learnable,” though this is not the impression one gets from glimpses of the grammar. (For example, the Sanskrit verb has a benedictive mood, used only when blessing.) Greek, says Ostler, is “an instructive example of what can happen to a prestige language when its community ceases to innovate, and the rest of the world catches up.” Celts, Romans, Germans, and Slavs in turn then march across the historico-linguistic stage, before the English, French, Dutch, and Spanish embark in leaky wooden carracks to spread their languages to the remotest regions of the earth.

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