Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World

Speaking of tongues

Nicholas Ostler’s survey of the world’s linguistic histories, Empires of the Word, fascinates Martin Jacques

Saturday March 12, 2005
The Guardian

Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World
by Nicholas Ostler
615pp, HarperCollins, £30

There are many ways of recounting the history of the world – via the rise and fall of civilisations, the fortunes of nation states, socio-economic systems and patterns, the development of technology, or the chronology of war and military prowess. This book tells the story through the rise and decline of languages. It is a compelling read, one of the most interesting books I have read in a long while.

Nicholas Ostler does not adopt a narrowly linguistic approach – based on the structure of languages and their evolution – but instead looks at the history of languages, the reasons for their rise and, as a rule, also their fall. While it is a history of languages, it is at the same time a history of the cultures and civilisations from which they sprang. The book concentrates on those languages that have been – in some form or another – globally influential: they include Sumerian, Akkadian, Egyptian, Chinese, Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, and the main European languages, not least English.
In defence of the centrality of language in human history, Ostler argues that it is language that enables people to form communities and to share a common history: indeed, by the very act of the old teaching the young to speak, language is also central to the establishment and reproduction of tradition. He describes very well how languages reflect and articulate the cultures and histories of different communities: indeed, unless you speak the vernacular, it is impossible properly to understand another people. From his rich picture of why major languages have waxed and waned, it is clear that there is no single model: on the contrary, while Ostler does his best to categorise and conceptualise, there are in fact almost as many models as there are languages. For all the hubris about the rise of English and how it will rule the world’s tongues for ever, it is sobering to reflect on why languages that in their day seemed utterly irresistible in their dominance and prestige, spoken across large regions of the world for thousands of years, were eventually eclipsed.

There is Greek, whose fortunes were tied only loosely to Greek civilisation and which somehow managed to hitch a ride on the Roman empire and become, as the prestige language of learning, an integral part of that historical era too. There is Latin itself, which ultimately failed to outlive the imperium and which slowly transmuted into the vernacular Romance languages. There is Sanskrit, which spread from northern India across the sub-continent, largely on the back of Hinduism, and then – though no one quite knows how – to southeast Asia. Codified 2,500 years ago and barely changed since, this was a language that took great pleasure in its own beauty, which was intimately bound up with an Indian worldview, but which was ultimately to ossify to such an extent that today, although still an official language of India, it is spoken by fewer than 200,000 people.

And then there is Chinese. Chinese history is an exemplar of exceptionalism and the Chinese language entirely conforms to this pattern. Its written system dates back around 4,000 years and during that time it has changed remarkably little. Ostler’s explanation for its longevity is interesting: Chinese civilisation is highly centred and averse to disunity; like Egyptian civilisation, it owed allegiance to an emperor who enjoyed a “mandate from heaven”; and the sheer density of population in its heartlands during ancient times largely prevented “swamping” by other languages. In a world now dominated by alphabetic languages, Chinese, based on characters, remains a pictographic tongue. This is why the same Chinese written system can serve equally well for the many different Chinese dialects (sometimes described as languages) and thereby provide a powerful source of unity for such a huge and wide-ranging population.

A major turning point comes around AD1500. Before that, the spread of languages was essentially by means of land routes, which meant that the growth of a language was relatively slow and usually organic. After 1500, the major form of expansion was by sea. The classic mode of language growth in the new European era was by means of military conquest: by contrast, languages such as Sanskrit and Chinese had spread largely by means of the successful natural growth of language communities. Indeed, it is salutary to learn that it has mainly been western cultures – Greek, Roman, French, Dutch, Portuguese, British and American, together with Islam – that have sought to impose themselves, and their languages, on others. Otherwise, the expansion of languages, notably the great Asian languages, has been organic rather than by force. Once language expansion could be achieved by force – or what Ostler describes as mergers and acquisitions – the pace of language growth was enormously accelerated.

European expansion started with the Portuguese, followed by the Spanish and the Dutch. The spread of language was generally an integral part of the imperial, “civilising” mission. The impact varied enormously from continent to continent, country to country. While many Latin American countries to this day speak Spanish, in another former colony, the Philippines, the linguistic legacy remains marginal. The Dutch, via the Boer settlers, bequeathed Afrikaans to South Africa, but in their largest and most populous colony, the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia, the Dutch language was never widely spoken.

As this example suggests, the most important way in which the invader language usually took root was through the migration of settlers from the imperial centre: where migration did not happen on any great scale, the chances of a language prospering in the long run were much weaker. The reason why the English language became so dominant in its colonies in the United States, Australia and New Zealand was primarily because of large-scale migration from Britain.

The top 20 global languages – defined in terms of their use as a first or second language – provide an interesting reflection on the fortunes of those languages that have spread by organic growth and those that have expanded by means of mergers and acquisitions. At the top of the league table is Mandarin Chinese, which has 1,052 million speakers, more than twice as many as the next highest, English, with 508 million. Third is Hindi with 487 million and fourth Spanish, with 417 million. Of course, English is a far more global language – though primarily as a second language – than Chinese, the vast majority of whose speakers live in China. But with the present rise of China – and indeed India – it would not be difficult to imagine Mandarin and Hindi becoming far more widely spoken by 2100. By way of contrast, French, which until the early 20th century was, with English, the global language of choice, albeit with rather more prestige, now lingers in ninth place in the table, with a mere 128 million speakers – little more than half the number of Bengali speakers, and just above Urdu.

History teaches us that the future will always be shaped in large part by the unexpected and the unknowable: language is a classic case in point. Even the mightiest languages have fallen, and the future of the mightiest of our time – English – can never be secure or guaranteed, whatever the appearances to the contrary. Languages follow something like Darwin’s law of evolution: they come and go, though their life spans vary enormously. Of the approximately 7,000 language communities in the world today, more than half have fewer than 5,000 speakers, and 1,000 fewer than a dozen: many will be extinct within a generation. But which languages, a millennium from now, will still be prospering, which will be the dominant global languages, and which will be the lingua franca? From our vantage point in the early 21st century, this remains entirely unpredictable.

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.

· Martin Jacques is visiting fellow at the LSE Asian Research Centre

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