September 4, 2015 by ethelfritha
I’ll be honest. Practically the only reason I’m posting about this book is because it took me approximately 9,842 years to read. The reason I don’t have much else to say about it isn’t because it isn’t good–it is–or because it’s too specialized/jargon-filled for a non-linguist to read–it isn’t–but because it’s so huge in scope that whatever I say about it will be small and trite in comparison.
Because it’s written through the lens of linguistics, Ostler is remarkable agenda-less when it comes to relating and commenting upon world events–his concern is not with the events themselves, but of the linguistic effect that occurred because of those changes. That alone makes this quite a remarkable–not to say refreshing–work of history. However, although it’s written for laypeople, it is very specialized, and I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that most people just aren’t too fussed about quitting the 75-page-long chapter about the development of Sanskrit. (Which is NOT to say that the development of Sanskrit is not interesting. Sanskrit is a highly compounded language, to the degree that one sentence can be divided many different ways based on how you compound the words in it. Naturally, this lends itself easily to punning and to stories and sentences with double meanings. Ostler (himself an expert in Sanskrit) uses the example of couplet a 12th-century epic which manages to tell two stories at once: a quest for spiritual enlightenment, as well as a cattle raid upon enemy troops.)
If you are interested at all in the development of the modern world’s language situation, this is the book for you. Of particular interest (at least to me) was the chapter on Latin, Celtic, and Germanic and their battle for linguistic dominance in post-Roman Europe. (Spoilers: Celtic doesn’t really come out on top here.) Other chapters include an interesting comparison of Ancient Egyptian and Chinese, a short history of Ancient Mesopotamia and its linguistic empires, the interesting case of Spanish in the Americas, and the rise of Modern English.