Diarmaid Ó Muirithe

Towers of Babel

Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World


HarperCollins 614pp £30 order from our bookshop

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, now forgotten. The other sister, Judith, had an obscure and perhaps disreputable youth, then settled down to a quiet life at home. But then the world reversed the fortunes of these two sisters. Despite Phoenicia’s glittering career, her enterprising nature and all her popularity, she quite suddenly disappeared, and among the people she had frequented, stimulated and dazzled for so long, she left no memory at all. Now it is as if Phoenicia had never been. Yet Judith is still with us, often derided and dishonoured – especially by her foster children, who have been strangely resentful of her – but apparently as sturdy as ever. She has even, just recently, returned to her own home, and seems thereby to have gained a fresh lease of life.

Many other gleams of light brighten Ostler’s long and difficult journey. An account of the remarkable similarity in the development of Egyptian and Chinese leads on to a discussion of the Egyptian spoken by Queen Cleopatra, a lady who also spoke Ethiopian, Trogodyte, Hebrew, Arabic, Syriac, Median and Parthian – and most probably Greek in her dalliances with Caesar and later with Antony. I have never read as readable and yet as uncompromisingly scholarly an explanation of the scripts used in ancient Egypt: the monumental glyphs, the hieratic or priestly, the demotic or popular, and lastly the Coptic. Christianity put an end to hieroglyphic writing and, with it, the central stream of ancient Egyptian culture. But Christianity also ensured the lasting survival of the Egyptian language. Greek had taken over as the language of elite life by the third century AD, but the Christians found that Egyptian was the preferred language of conversion; they added six new letters borrowed from the demotic script, because of the complications of the Egyptian sound system, and so the Coptic alphabet was created. Egyptian was written this way for another thousand years, during which time Arabic blotted out the language of the country’s previous masters, the Greeks.

Ostler is just as masterly in his chapters on the other great disappeared languages of the world. Ubi sunt? Gone, we know, but why? Languages die for a variety of reasons. By conquest, mostly, but not always. The Norse who conquered northern France lost their own language and adopted French within a generation or two; true to form, the Anglo-Normans who conquered Ireland quickly lost their French and their English, and eventually had to have the accession of Henry VIII explained to them in Irish.

The rise and decline of the Celtic languages has been charted by many eminent scholars, including those thanked by Ostler in his book, Damian McManus of Trinity College, Dublin, and Kim McCone of the National University at Maynooth. The basis for the spread of Latin into the Celtic regions was the political and military spread of the Roman imperium, but the Celtic speakers of Britain proved surprisingly impervious to Latin, even though it was the language of officialdom and literacy for four hundred years. Latin never became the language of the common people in Britain. In other places, Celtic peoples seemed to recognise the benefits of globalisation; the Roman phrase otium cum dignitate – peace with honour, or (equivalently) leisure with good value, appealed to the continental Celts, who saw in Roman rule the benefits of Roman citizenship. And, of course, trading was conducted in Latin. It is interesting that the modern Irish poet Michael Hartnett, writing about the almost fatal decline of Irish in the nineteenth century, explained that English was a better language in which to sell the pig. He was not being facetious; economic factors have played a major role in the decline of Welsh, Scottish Gaelic and Breton in recent times and in the deaths of Manx and Cornish.

What our author has to say about the struggles of Nahuatl, and of Cuzco, the courtly language of the Inca kings, is equally fascinating. He attempts – and succeeds admirably, with copious use of anecdote and translation – ‘to show something of the temper of mind that was conditioned by a language, even as it gained or lost speakers’.

So-called ‘minor languages’ are dying out the world over, and we should all be concerned. Ostler urges us not to be complacent about the survival of even so universal a language as English. It is very difficult indeed to reverse the spread of a language, but, as he says, Akkadian and Egyptian, Sanskrit and Persian, Greek and Latin all seemed irresistible in their prestige and dominance. Bismarck thought that English would survive because the Americans spoke it. Let’s hope he was right. He wasn’t to know of the spread of the World Wide Web, of shifting populations, of the rise of Spanish in America and of Muslim culture everywhere. If the past, so wonderfully presented in this splendid work, is anything to go by, the future of any language is set to be full of surprises.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter