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am 22. Oktober 2006
This impressive work is a study of language dynamics over 5 millennia. The author deals with the birth, rise and decline of languages through history, and the factors that played a part, like trade, conquest and culture. The narrative begins in Sumeria and ends with English as the most important international language of today. The style is engaging throughout.
Of course the book is also by definition a history of civilisation, focusing on prominent languages like Egyptian, Akkadian, Sanskrit, Chinese, Greek, Latin and the larger European languages. The life-spans of languages differ greatly, if one compares Latin with Greek, for instance, since Greek continued to thrive under Roman hegemony alongside Latin. It eventually supplanted Latin again in the Byzantine Empire.
Some significant civilisational languages like Latin and Sanskrit have all but died as spoken tongues, but they gave birth to rich families of related languages, whilst Old Chinese's pictographic script still serves its daughter languages very well.
A major change occurred around the 16th century when the European voyages of discovery spread the languages of Europe far and wide to the Americas, Africa and Asia. Launched by trade, these languages became tongues of empire through conquest. In that way Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and English spread around the globe.
Dutch gave rise to the vibrant Afrikaans in Southern Africa and lingers on in some form or other in Suriname and on some tiny Caribbean islands. French is in decline, having lost much prestige and many speakers the last few decades.
Ostler differentiates between languages that grew organically (like Chinese) and the aforementioned ones that grew by "merger and acquisition". Of the former, Mandarin Chinese is spoken by more than a billion people whilst English with around 500 million, is in second place. Hindi (derived from Sanskrit) is third with about 490 million, followed by Spanish in 4th place with 418 million speakers. Of course as a second language, English is of greater global importance than Mandarin.
The book is full of fascinating facts and stuff that will appeal to all those interested in language - linguists and hobbyists alike. For example: There are an estimated 7000 linguistic communities today, but at least half of them are on the verge of extinction with fewer than 5000 speakers. Within one generation, many of these languages will disappear.
For those interested in the many facets of language, I also recommend: On The Origin Of Language and A Guide To The World's Languages by Merritt Ruhlen, The Unfolding Of Language by Gary Deutscher, How To Kill a Dragon by Calvert Watkins, Genes, Peoples, and Languages by Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza and The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language by John McWhorter. For written examples of many languages, there is The Book Of A Thousand Tongues by the United Bible Societies.
Empires Of The Word contains many beautiful and informative maps. This well-researched and engaging work concludes with notes, an index and a bibliography.