Nicholas Ostler’s Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World

“Each language has its own colour and flavour. In this book, we have glimpsed 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. These manifold qualities can sometimes be seen in the languages' literatures. But they leap out when the languages' histories are told.” -- Nicholas Ostler, Empires of the Word: a Language History of the World

World histories deliver an unusual rush, the feeling of momentarily attaining a god's eye view. Patterns stand out that from an ordinary daily vantage point would not be noticed – e.g. “the remarkable similarity of the careers of the Egyptian and Chinese languages.” Events previously taken for granted are suddenly revealed as comparatively anomalous – e.g. the fact that the invasions of Britain by Saxons constituted “the one and only time that Germanic conquerors were able to hold onto their own language,” possibly because the Britons were decimated by bubonic plague.

Ostler believes that languages have characters and that, even for a language, character is destiny. His background is in Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, and Chibcha, so unsurprisingly he's at his best writing about the ancient world -- his chapter entitled “Three Thousand Years of Solipsism: The Adventures of Greek” transported me to a world of Greek city-states beset by Scythians that I had not imaginatively visited since devouring Paul Park's superb novel The Gospel of Corax.

Because he loves grammar, Ostler loves Sanskrit -- “Indian culture is unique in the world for its rigorous analysis of its own language,” he writes, “which it furthermore made the central discipline of its own culture.” He adoringly itemizes the eleven extra senses the word “padma” (lotus) has in the neuter gender – lotus-like ornament; form of a lotus; root of a lotus; coloured marks on the face and trunk of an elephant; an army formation; a trillion(10^12); lead; a tantric chakra; a mole on the body; a spot; part of a column -- and the eight more it has in the masculine gender -- temple; quarter-elephant; species of serpent; Rama; a treasure of Kubera; a mode of sexual enjoyment; a posture in meditation; a treasure connected with magic.

In another beautiful attempt at conveying the flavour of a language, he provides seven definitions of the German “einfallen” – to collapse, to cave in; to invade (a country); (night) to fall, (winter) to set in; (beams of light) to be incident; (game birds) to come in, settle; to join in, come in (on a piece of music), break in (to a conversation); (thought) occur to somebody. This is a book to lose yourself in.

Here's Ostler on the invented future English in Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker
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2 thoughts on “Nicholas Ostler’s <em>Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World</em>”

  1. The basic pleasure in the phonetic elements of a language and in the style of their patterns, and then in a higher dimension, pleasure in the association of these word-forms with meanings, is of fundamental importance. This pleasure is quite distinct from the practical knowledge of a language, and not the same as an analytic understanding of its structure. It is simpler, deeper-rooted, and yet more immediate than the enjoyment of literature. Thought it may be allied to some of the elements in the appreciation of verse, it does not need any poets, other than the nameless artists who composed the language. It can be strongly felt in the simple contemplation of vocabulary, or even in a string of names.

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