Empires of the world

6/5/2005 5:28:05 AM

There is a certain vogue for ambitious global histories refracted through some interest: Jared Diamond's Collapse and his previous work, or monographs of the Codpiece: The Garment That Changed the World genre. Nicholas Ostler's Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World is about something vital - the agents of history, like ourselves, were framed by the languages they spoke - and something palpable: we have a reasonable record of the processes by which something as fundamental as language adoption has occurred, beneath our noses.

General historians typically treat language issues as incidental and language history is not a central concern, even for linguists. Ostler points out that linguistic patriotism has often involved some knowledge of one's own language's history: The Story of English and Melvyn Bragg's recent rehash were big broadcasting events. In Empires, Ostler takes on the world, and it is a worthy popular history by an academic linguist of an underappreciated facet of things as they are.

The book exudes the sensuousness of the subject matter, with alien scripts and carefully chosen transliterations abounding. Unlike some historians of everything, Ostler is true to the variety of his data and the lessons he draws are limited, few and hesitant.

At the outset, he emphasises that he is practising history strictissimo sensu: recorded history. There are no stabs at how the linguistic make-up of Asia and Europe, which early civilisations confronted, came to be. No horse-rearing Indo-Europeans and the like. He is, however, dismissive of an assumption that animates much history of language: that conquest is the prime instrument of language adoption. The historical record indicates this is rarely simply the case.

Empires of the Word is organised roughly chronologically according to the emergence of successful, expanding languages. The Middle East and Mesopotamia, in particular, is the first port of call. Here the story is involved and the linguistic examples provided are varied and profuse, not just because of the complexity of the record but because many phenomena are encountered for the first time.

The use of a classical language, the way the West used Latin for liturgy and scholarship long after it ceased to be spoken, might seem a decadent outcome of literacy but the language (unrelated to any other) of the inventors of cuneiform, the Sumerians, was the basis of education for a thousand years after its general disappearance.

It stands to reason that the British Raj would extend the use of English through existing bureaucracies but the civil service of the Assyrians remained a persistent body though using Akkadian, Aramaic, Greek and then Arabic as politics evolved. It was in the Middle East that languages are first known to have been protected by confessional allegiance, most successfully in the case of Hebrew but also Coptic, the descendant of Egyptian, and varieties of Aramaic spoken by Christians in Islamic societies.

Though English is riding on cultural prestige, Sanskrit learning was so attractive that imitation Hindu or Buddhist kingdoms proliferated in South-East Asia, whose scholars contributed to general Sanskrit culture - all without the faintest whiff of force.

Initially, Greek represented the complete package, strong culturally, commercially and militarily but its culture was strong enough for it to animate the Roman world after its power passed to Rome.

Though Empires is expository rather than provocative, Ostler is not frightened of new theories. The reason the language of Germanic invaders took root in England as nowhere else in the Roman Empire was that Britannia had been depopulated by bubonic plague, an event remembered in the Arthurian Waste Land myth.

When discussing the various fates of European languages outside Europe after Columbus et al (why is there no trace of Dutch in Indonesia but East Timor adopted Portuguese as an official language?), Ostler draws on his own research into South American language history. Against the received idea, he details the way the Catholic Church, for missionary and pastoral reasons, used local prestige languages such as Quechua, the language of the Incas, even extending them beyond their pre-Conquest spheres of influence. The eventual, destructive, Spanish-only policy was an Enlightenment idea, like the expulsion of the Jesuits, intensified by those other sons of the Enlightenment, the revolutionaries for independence.

Though Ostler eschews grand theories, he is capable of suggestive, unusual comparisons: between Egyptian and Chinese; between the rapid spread of Arabic and English's expansion, with the US, across North America; between the conservative orthography of English and Chinese.

As to the future, Ostler concedes that some aspects of English's success look unique, such as globalisation of communication, but finds echoes in earlier expansions, such as those of the Phoenicians or of maritime Europe. He stresses the groundwork of the British in establishing English in Asia and in diplomacy (so that English was a working language of the European Economic Community, as the EU was then called, even before Britain joined), rather than the standard emphasis on American power, hard and soft, NATO and MTV.

Empires of the Word is a grand popularisation of a very accessible aspect of history.