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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