Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World by Nicholas Ostler - review by Diarmaid Ó Muirithe

Diarmaid Ó Muirithe

Towers of Babel

Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World


HarperCollins 614pp £30

What an extraordinary odyssey the author of this superb work embarked upon. His subtitle hints at its complexity. He sets out to tell the stories of the linguistic traditions that have come to be the most widespread. He restricts himself to languages of whose histories there is written evidence, which means that he has had to omit some of the most ancient, such as the Polynesian languages of the Pacific. His history covers millennia, and, as he says, a history of humanity that concentrates on languages offers a long view.

Nicholas Ostler chooses to deal first with ‘the three sisters’ of the Middle East, who span the history of 4,500 years: Akkadian, spoken by Sargon I, the first Assyrian king, in 2,300 BC, a close relative of the Arabic spoken by Saddam Hussein; Aramaic, the old lingua franca of the Middle East, which bridges the gap between the decline of Akkadian around 600 BC and the onset of Arabic with the Muslims around AD 600; and Hebrew, on which subject he entertains us with a parable. The Canaan sisters grew up together, but then set out on very different paths in life. Phoenicia chose the high life and had a daughter,

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