Empires of the Word, by Nicholas Ostler

Language is mightier than the sword
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The Independent Culture

This book opens with what its author calls a "pioneering moment of fatal impact" when - in a dramatic encounter on the causeway across a lake in Mexico - Hernan Cortes met Montezuma and, after they exchanged compliments in their respective tongues, began his colonisation.

This book opens with what its author calls a "pioneering moment of fatal impact" when - in a dramatic encounter on the causeway across a lake in Mexico - Hernan Cortes met Montezuma and, after they exchanged compliments in their respective tongues, began his colonisation.

Other events might have served Nicholas Ostler's purpose just as well in his "language history of the world": Captain Cook meeting the Aboriginals in Queensland, or an Indian setting foot on Cambodian soil in the first century AD, thus transplanting Sanskrit into South-east Asia. In each case, he says, one language-community irrupted into another, and the course of history was changed.

Ostler aims to open a new avenue of historical analysis, where "language dynamics" becomes a tool for the study of societies. Language-communities, he argues, are bigger players on the world stage than princes and statesmen. He quotes Bismarck, asked in 1898 to name a defining event in recent history, and replying "North America speaks English". The alliances which shaped 20th-century history were one long vindication of those words.

Ostler looks at languages' rise and fall, at why some take root and others wither. He demolishes the assumption that military and economic power is the key. Why, he asks, did Sogdian - the language of the powerful Silk Road merchants - never take root? Why, after 500 years of Roman rule, did Greeks, Syrians and Egyptians still talk to each other in Greek and not Latin? Conversely, how come Sanskrit was taken up all over South-east Asia when its advent was attended by not one single soldier? On the other hand, its spread was powered by the Buddhist teachings enshrined in it: religion is a key. Islam, likewise, is unthinkable without the vehicle of Arabic.

Ostler suggests the sheer charisma of a language can power its rise, with English the supreme contemporary example and Russian - losing ground in many lands where it once held sway - the negative converse. In the emergent states of central Asia, which were bound together by the Russian lingua franca, the smart second language is now English.

As Ostler points out, it would be rash to assume that English will maintain its present hegemony. A milestone was recently passed on the internet, where for the first time English traffic was exceeded by the total in other languages. Moreover, the monolingual inhabitants of the English-speaking world exhibit a rare complacency; almost everywhere else, multilingualism is the norm.

For all its patterns and laws, the chief pleasure of this fascinating book lies in its detail, and in its hieroglyphs, ideograms and scripts plus translations, as with this Sanskrit maxim: "Language, auspicious, charming, like a creeper,/ Whose minds does it not win over?" Whose indeed?

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