One of my goals this year has been to read all the unread books that have been on my shelves since 2006. I’ve made good progress toward that goal, and I’ve enjoyed many of the books I’ve read in the process. The others—well, let’s just say I’m glad they won’t be sitting on my shelves making me feel guilty anymore. This book by Nicholas Ostler falls in the latter category.
I actually received this book as a parting gift from coworkers at a previous job. The person who selected it knew that I had been studying Greek and that I was interested in language history in general. And it does seem like a great idea for a book. Ostler looks at world history through the lens of language—which languages are spoken where, how languages spread, and how languages die. His view is expansive. He covers ancient languages of the Fertile Crescent, the classical languages, modern languages, Eastern and Western languages. He doesn’t cover every language I’ve ever heard of, but he spends time with a good huge chunk of them, as well as with several I’ve never heard of. There’s discussion of Akkadian, Aramaic, Phoenician, Egyptian, Chinese, Sanskrit, Greek, Celtic, Gaulish, German, Slavonic, Latin, Spanish, Portuguese, Nahuatl, Quechua, French, Russian, and English.
You can perhaps see where I’m going with this. How on earth could one book adequately explore all these languages? I’m not sure it’s possible, and I think Ostler tries to do too much in taking on this many languages, even if he wisely chooses not to give them all equal attention. This is a case of a nonfiction book that, in an attempt to be comprehensive, fails to be engaging.
That’s not to say that Ostler doesn’t succeed at some points. I really liked learning that language spread isn’t always about who’s in power. Sometimes the dominant political force is not the dominant linguistic force. Take Aramaic, a language originally spoken by nomadic people who spread the language throughout the Fertile Crescent, thanks in part to forced dispersions at the hands of the Assyrians. Eventually, the language came to surpass the more elite Akkadian. With so many people speaking Aramaic, it was easier just to shift to that language, rather than try to educate the masses in Akkadian. Those facts stuck with me because Ostler was arguing a point when sharing them—that power does not equal linguistic dominance.
At times, I thought Ostler’s main points got lost in all the details. I could see, for example, that he was trying to draw some conclusions about why some languages die in his chapter comparing Egyptian and Chinese, but for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what those conclusions were. If I’d sat down and really studied the chapter, I might have sussed it out, but I didn’t care enough to put in that kind of work.
And all too often, Ostler doesn’t even have a clear point to make, so the book becomes a dry recitation of facts. Eventually, this became enough of a frustration for me that I ended up skimming, looking for interesting bits. The book does lend itself to that kind of reading. Each chapter can be read in isolation without too much difficulty. I enjoyed the closing chapters on English, even though I hadn’t properly read most of the chapters immediately preceding them.
Although Ostler is a linguist, this is more of a history book than a linguistics book. There’s not much information about how specific languages changed over time—the focus is on when and where they are used, not how the languages themselves evolve. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s worth knowing before you pick up this book.
As I mentioned in my Sunday Salon post yesterday, I think there are nonfiction books that are great to read, and nonfiction books that are more suitable for studying. This book is definitely the latter, and I’m not really in a place right now where I want the latter. If you’re looking for lots of good information on language history, and you’re willing to invest the time, this book might be worthwhile.