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Reviewed by:
  • Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World
  • Frances Karttunen and Alfred W. Crosby
Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World. By Nicholas Ostler. New York: HarperCollins, 2005. 640 pp. $29.95 (cloth).

In 1995 the Journal of World History (vol. 6, no. 2) published an article of ours, "Language Death, Language Genesis, and World History," in which we asserted that world historians were in need of a new source of data and suggested that they look at language, specifically what we described as solid areal and historical linguistics. This field, like the study of infectious diseases, is more receptive to quantitative analysis than many others. That is, one can sometimes find out with some degree of accuracy how many people are speaking a given language at a given time just as one can find out how many have tuberculosis. And linguistic practice, like our immune systems, often survives noisy ideology and fashion.

As an example of questions worth exploring, we suggested historians seek to find out how many languages were spoken in a given area in a given year and how that compared with the situation a decade and a century before and after. Then, steadied with factual ballast, we might take the time to ask why rather than immediately rocketing off into speculative space. Exactly one decade since we made this recommendation, linguist Nicholas Ostler's book addressing such questions and many more has been published.

Except for one devilishly technical footnote that begins on page 181 and continues on page 182, linguists have no particular advantage over historians in making their way through the more than five hundred pages of Ostler's oeuvre. Although it is not a fast and easy read, Empires of the Word demands no more effort (and in some cases a good bit less) than many a tome published to historians' acclaim in the last couple of decades. While we hesitate to recommend it for routine [End Page 225] assignment in undergraduate courses, graduate students of history who invest the necessary time and attention will acquire a useful new tool for thinking about human history, and the same can be said for their professors. Ostler's message is that "The history of humanity seen from its languages is a long view" (p. 9) and that "this history told through languages can give an insight into the long-term effects of sudden changes" (p. 12). It can certainly provide useful perspective on the current situation in Iraq (chapter 3, "The Desert Blooms") and the impressively deep roots of the present conflicts in the Caucasus and Central Asia (pp. 434–437).

After a brief part 1 that lays out Ostler's linguist's-eye view of language and the parameters for this particular study, part 2 takes the reader through the world's language history from Sumerian to Aramaic to Sanskrit to Chinese to the Indo-European languages in Europe, ending up with "The First Death of Latin." Part 3 begins with "The Second Death of Latin" and thence takes up the story of the global spread of some languages and the concomitant ebb of some indigenous languages in contacted areas once the oceans became highways. Here he examines the varied fates of Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French, German, Russian, and English in colonized lands and seeks to provide some rationale for the different outcomes, such as the virtual nonexistence of Dutch in Indonesia versus the huge population of Portuguese speakers in Brazil and English speakers in India. Part 4, relatively brief, speculates on the future of the world's current "top twenty" languages.

If a potential reader is unsure of whether to commit to this big book, we suggest going directly to the penultimate chapter with its table of the top twenty. If that chapter proves compelling, then the reader might continue on to the end of the book, noting the back references to various chapters, which might provide the inspiration to start from the beginning to learn the details upon which Ostler bases his conclusions.

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