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Empires of the Word : a Language History of the World (2005)

di Nicholas Ostler

UtentiRecensioniPopolaritàMedia votiCitazioni
1,452329,183 (3.95)80
An unusual and authoritative 'natural history of languages' that narrates the ways in which one language has superseded or outlasted another at different times in history. The story of the world in the last five thousand years is above all the story of its languages. Some shared language is what binds any community together, and makes possible both the living of a common history and the telling of it. Yet the history of the world's great languages has rarely been examined. 'Empires of the Word' is the first to bring together the tales in all their glorious variety: the amazing innovations - in education, culture and diplomacy - devised by speakers in the Middle East; the uncanny resilience of Chinese throughout twenty centuries of invasions; the progress of Sanskrit from north India to Java and Japan; the struggle that gave birth to the languages of modern Europe; and the global spread of English. Besides these epic achievements, language failures are equally fascinating: why did Germany get left behind? Why did Egyptian, which had survived foreign takeovers for three millennia, succumb to Mohammed's Arabic? Why is Dutch unknown in modern Indonesia, given that the Netherlands had ruled the East Indies for as long as the British ruled India? As this book engagingly reveals, the language history of the world shows eloquently the real characters of peoples; it also shows that the language of the future will, like the languages of the past, be full of surprises.… (altro)
  1. 30
    In Search of the Indo-Europeans: Language, Archaeology, and Myth di J. P. Mallory (timspalding)
  2. 10
    The horse, the wheel and language di David W. Anthony (timspalding)
  3. 03
    The Story of Spanish di Jean-Benoît Nadeau (lorax)
    lorax: "Empires of the Word" is a history of a dozen or so languages shaping history, including Spanish; "The Story of Spanish" is the same idea, less academically and obviously in more detail, focused on Spanish. Both are highly recommended.
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An interesting linguistic history of some of the world's biggest languages — why they rose, why some of them fell, and why they didn't experience other paths. Full of interesting tidbits, such as the surprising persistence of indigenous languages in the Spanish North American colonies we think of as monolithically Spanish-language today, or the question of why some languages (English, Mandarin, French) spread while others (German, Russian) don't even when speakers of those languages exert political and military control. (Speakers of Germanic languages overran the entire western Roman Empire; in no place but Britain did a Germanic language take outside of Germania.)

Only at the very end of the book does Ostler step back from his survey of major languages to try to draw systematic lessons about why some languages succeed and others don't. It was interesting and tantalizingly brief, and I wanted to know more. ( )
  dhmontgomery | Dec 13, 2020 |
I bought this thinking it would be philological in nature, but it turned out to be something else entirely; a history of the spread (and decline in many cases) of the use of major languages throughout history. Traditional philology gets only fleeting mentions. If the author is to be believed, such a thing has never been attempted before.

Hence I was less interested than I had hoped, but that isn't the fault of the author - and I wasn't totally uninterested, either. Parts of the book, mainly those overlapping with pre-existing interests of mine, were fascinating, other parts were a bit of a grind. The basic idea of examining how conventional historical processes (e.g. military, colonial, mercantile, migrational, religious, technological) impact the use, spread and decline of languages did seem interesting and original, particularly the generalising conclusions but, oddly, they come before the detailed exposition they are derived from.

Strongly recommended to history buffs - not so much to anybody else.
( )
  Arbieroo | Jul 17, 2020 |
Fascinating look at languages through history which spread because other people wanted or had to learn them such as Chinese, Aramaic, Sanskrit, Greek, and Spanish. After looking at why different languages persisted in being spoken by a large number of people over a wide area, the author tries to predict whether English is here to stay as the current no. 1 international language. ( )
  Robertgreaves | Aug 16, 2019 |
Oh dear--I had such high hopes--and I really do love the occasional academic treatise. This just wasn't compelling, despite in the abstract sounding like a slam dunk for me. Eventually I realised one day I will die, and I'd rather have read something else. It's really, really specific, technical, and historical, and despite all the drama and romance that the subject could have had, it was about as gripping as reading about how General Motors occasionally changed their car designs, and how. No, not even car designs, less interesting, um, let's say how they changed their engine. That sort of thing. I think there's a nice opportunity for somebody to write a 250 pager on the same topic, but with more general appeal. ( )
  ashleytylerjohn | Sep 19, 2018 |
I just couldn't get into the book. It was a tough read, although it's clear the author loves his subject. The first couple of chapters were interesting, and I thought the author's enthusiasm would carry me through. But it wasn't enough and it really read (to me) more like a series of essays or academic papers all rolled up into one book.

The author looks at various languages and traces their history throughout time. He also sometimes puts multiple languages from different areas together in one chapter to discuss them. And while he seems knowledgeable and excited about the topic, it just wasn't something I was interested in. I thought it would be more historical (the "Empires of the World" threw me off there) rather than a linguistic study.

If you are studying languages, anthropology, etc., it might be interesting to read. It also might be worth the pickup for those who are studying the history or languages of particular areas, although it's rather pricey as a text and a poor student would be better suited to borrowing from the library. If you're just a casual reader, definitely thumb through this first before deciding to pick it up. It's more of an academic text than a read for your commute or time at the beach or coffee shop. ( )
  HoldMyBook | Feb 11, 2018 |
It’s a history of all languages – some have called it a macro-history. The ambition of this book is really extraordinary. There have been lots of histories of English, and there are lots of histories of other languages in those languages, but actually to try and write a history of the whole of language is an incredibly audacious thing, and Ostler pulls it off.
 
A marvelous book, learned and instructive.
 
This is a great book. After reading it you will never think of language in the same way again - and you will probably think of the world, and its future, in a rather different way too.
 
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An unusual and authoritative 'natural history of languages' that narrates the ways in which one language has superseded or outlasted another at different times in history. The story of the world in the last five thousand years is above all the story of its languages. Some shared language is what binds any community together, and makes possible both the living of a common history and the telling of it. Yet the history of the world's great languages has rarely been examined. 'Empires of the Word' is the first to bring together the tales in all their glorious variety: the amazing innovations - in education, culture and diplomacy - devised by speakers in the Middle East; the uncanny resilience of Chinese throughout twenty centuries of invasions; the progress of Sanskrit from north India to Java and Japan; the struggle that gave birth to the languages of modern Europe; and the global spread of English. Besides these epic achievements, language failures are equally fascinating: why did Germany get left behind? Why did Egyptian, which had survived foreign takeovers for three millennia, succumb to Mohammed's Arabic? Why is Dutch unknown in modern Indonesia, given that the Netherlands had ruled the East Indies for as long as the British ruled India? As this book engagingly reveals, the language history of the world shows eloquently the real characters of peoples; it also shows that the language of the future will, like the languages of the past, be full of surprises.

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