Nicholas Ostler is the author of Empires Of The Word: A Language History Of The World. A native of England, he received his Ph.D. in linguistics from MIT. Ten years ago he created the Foundation for Endangered Languages, an organization that works to document and revitalize languages that are on the verge of extinction.
What is linguistics?
Linguistics is the study of human languages (and more generally, the human faculty of using language) conducted scientifically. Since human languages have structure at various levels, from the patterns of the sounds and articulations right through to patterns in the meanings of words and the flow of thought and argument, one aspect of linguistics is the attempt to lay this structure bare. But since human languages are also essential to human societies, and each language has its own complex history, another aspect of linguistics is the attempt to understand the causes and courses of these histories. This too can be undertaken at various levels, from the analysis of phonetic change through to the role of the languages in the histories of the people that speak them. It is this last subject that is taken up in Empires of the Word.
Do linguists ever allow themselves to make value judgments when comparing one language to another? If so, what criteria are used?
To make a value judgment as between languages is implicitly to rate one speaker community over another: this is not a scientific stance, although it has attractions to many, since human beings are constantly striving to assert superiority over each other; and clearly different cultures (and indeed languages) attract different researchers personally for all manner of reasons – aesthetic, ethical, political, economic. But without preferring one community to another, it is possible to trace language histories, and see that some language communities have been more effective than others in effecting the security and spread of their language. The criteria for this are the brute facts of survival and growth of numbers.
What is the best historical comparison to the spread and dominance of English throughout the world?
English is best compared to different languages at different points in its career. If we restrict our attention to the period of spread and dominance, when English took ship after it took shape, it is quite well-compared in its early spread in the Americas to the spread of Latin in Europe: military conquest followed by farming colonization. However, unlike the Romans who spread by incorporating surrounding populations into their implanted settlements, the British spread in North America effectively swept aside and confined the native populations, while their own population was expanded not just by natural increase (large families) but by immigration, speedily followed by linguistic recruitment of immigrants into speaking English.
The second phase of English imperialism, led off by the events in India in the 19th century, but continuing in the meteoric spread of English after the 2nd World War, is very different. Here English did not spread by incomers who swept aside the local population, but by recruiting the local elites. This is re-education, rather than sweep-aside. It is similar again to the spread of Latin by the Romans – for they too in their more far-flung provinces (notably Britain!) attempted to recruit local elites, even without colonization. It could also be compared to the spread of French in early modern Europe, where the perceived excellence of French Culture (naturally promoted by greater French wealth) led to take-up of the language, quite voluntarily, by elites all over eastern Europe.
What are the most important factors in the survival and spread of a language?
The crucial point is to sustain and grow the speaker community. This may be done by natural growth in a fertile environment – which may be quite an exploitative and objectively ruthless process, if the environment has been obtained through conquest and dispossession. But it may also be achieved through taking over another advanced community, as French spread in the 18-19th-century Russian high society; there, competence in a new language, symbolic of interest in new developments, was no threat to the substrate language, Russian. Provided that their speaker populations stay physically robust, the only threat to a language comes from a decline in speaker attitudes toward it: speakers must associate it with at least some of their daily needs or higher aspirations.
Have modern communications so altered the world that we’re unable to use history as a guide to the future of language?
There are aspects of the modern situation that are quite new: it never used to be possible for the spoken reality of life in a language to be projected across the world from one language area to many others without a large number of people coming to stay; broadcast media, and nowadays computer networks too, allow and indeed enforce access to prestige cultures from a very early age. So in principle, for example, it is possible now for large populations, of not necessarily wealthy people, to learn a language orally from an early age, if that language is associated with cultural or economic clout. This is clearly boosting English learning at the moment, but there are already signs that something similar will soon begin to reinforce Chinese too.
As against this, the fact that prestige (except for religious prestige) is evanescent has not changed. If English-speakers cease to lead technically and economically, they will soon be caught up with militarily, and indeed culturally and linguistically. It doesn’t happen overnight, but there is limited strength in any “founder’s effect” which might irrationally continue the linguistic bias of the 19th and 20th centuries toward Anglophones: look at what happened to Latin when the printing press put vernacular languages on a par with it for spreading ideas.
With developments such as globalization, media “sound-bites” and text messaging, are we in danger of losing the richness of our language and culture?
We may be going through a “laconic” period, where the virtues of expansive diction are not highly valued. I doubt it will last forever. And I don’t see globalization as such as a threat to the richness of language, unless people feel they have to write for, and even speak to, all potential audiences at once.
One of the best things about looking at language-history is the relief from having to live purely in the moment. English, for example, is a very young language, only 1500 years old, with only half the recorded history, say of Greek or even Latin. It has had a love-hate relationship with classics from the Mediterranean, with revivals of Latin learning (and to a lesser extent, Greek) in the 9th century and the 16th. There is absolutely no reason to look on modern trends as in some way ultimate, or the last word.
Can language be viewed in the way that a biologist might look at biodiversity? Has anyone ever theorized that the continued loss of many of the world’s languages may have implications for our survival as a species?
Yes. A direct example is seen in traditional knowledge of the medicinal value of plants, built up over millennia, which tends to be linked to language traditions; when a traditional language is abandoned, it is very rare, if not impossible, for a people to keep the full range of their traditional learning. Globalization, ironically, has the potential to make such detailed corners of human knowledge more widely available; but language loss has the converse potential to snuff out respect for such knowledge, and so discontinue its transmission.
Your affection for Sanskrit comes through in your book. What is it about Sanskrit that appeals to you?
Well, the Indian background helps: my parents would never have met if they had not both been sent out to India owing to the Second World War. But Sanskrit has many virtues that attract. Its grammar has been rigorously analyzed, but not in a doctrinaire way – there is room for intellectual debate. The classical Indian culture in which Sanskrit first flourished offers an immense variety of material, from romantic comedy and sensual poetry to epic, massive-word play, political science and philosophy. It embodies a contradiction, that a language whose literature is so lithe, should be indigenously analyzed as a sort of architectural structure. And I suppose I like the fact that it is so difficult (coming from English, certainly), yet so familiar in another way (coming at it from Latin, Greek and Russian).
July 11, 2005