Learning history through language

As you know, I love language and I love history. So what would I think of a book that is not just a history of language but a language history–ie, world history as told from the point of view of its various languages? I would love it, of course.

The book is Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World, by Nicholas Ostler.

Fist bumps to Tom for recommending it first, and to Jag for reminding us. Language lovers unite! (Jag’s book on language is imminent.)

I will not try to summarize  559 pages, but do let me try to get you to think: What would you say determines which languages spread and which die out?

I bet some of you said conquest. Fair enough. Let’s review (this is a partial list!):

Languages successfully spread by conquest:

  • Latin in Gaul and Iberia
  • Arabic in Mesopotamia and northern Africa
  • German (meaning Saxon, Frisian, Jutish and Anglish) in Britain
  • Spanish and Portuguese in Latin America

So conquest is the answer, right? Well, let’s try:

Languages not spread, despite conquest:

  • Latin in Britain and the eastern Mediterranean
  • Arabic in Iberia, Persia and beyond
  • Mongol, and later Manchu, in China
  • Mongol (and Tartar and Hunnish) almost anywhere
  • German in France, Iberia, Italy or nothern Africa (meaning: Frankish in Gaul; Ostrogoth and Lombard in Italy; Vandal and Visigoth in Iberia; Vandal in northern Africa)
  • Dutch in Indonesia

My point here is simply that history and language are far from obvious and thus infinitely mysterious and fascinating. Unravelling the reasons for the rise and fall of the various languages is a great way to understand, really understand, history.

Bonus 1:

The Hannibal Blog has weighed in on Alexander the Great and on Patanjali, but I hardly thought it possible that the two might have been aware of each other. Well, along comes a footnote on page 245, in which I discover that Patanjali (who, incidentally, wrote a famous grammar of Sanskrit besides his Yoga Sutras), noted that Alexander’s phalanxes were getting awfully close when he wrote “The Greek has besieged Saketa.”

Bonus 2:

At last an easy and memorable explanation of the difference between pidgin and creole: When adults meet and do not share a language, they will communicate in pidgin; when their children turn this into a new language, it becomes creole.

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2 thoughts on “Learning history through language

  1. Nicholas Ostler’s book looks of great interest, and I’ll put it on my “to read” list.

    In your piece you gave examples of languages spread by conquest, and those not. In that connection, I recommend to you an iconoclastic and idiosyncratic little book, called “The History of Britain Revealed – The shocking truth about the English language”, in which the author, MJ Harper, says, in so many words, that languages of conquerors only spread when they (the conquerors) engage in ethnic cleansing, or extermination, or if the conquered peoples are wiped out through disease.

    Absent this, the languages of the conquered peoples survive, because languages are, demonstrably, extremely tenacious.

    In the matter of the English language, it was always spoken in England, and so didn’t develop from the language of the Anglo-Saxon invaders, because there is no evidence that the Anglo-Saxons engaged in ethnic cleansing.

    As to Italian, French, Spanish, and Portuguese, they have more in common with each other than the Latin from which they’re allegedly derived. Thus, Latin was not likely the language of their origin, but simply a written shorthand to enable the diverse peoples of the Roman Empire to communicate with each other in matters of importance.

    The book knocked my socks off, and might knock yours off too.

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