Saturday, April 28, 2012

Nicholas Ostler's "Empires of the Word": Book Review

If John McWhorter's "Power of Babel" looks under the hood at how language's "engine" is assembled and how it energizes the word, Nicholas Ostler ranks the top models sold for their performance and handling. Ostler examines how the most successful languages throughout history succeeded or failed in perpetuating themselves as regional or, as with English, global means of communication. As a non-linguist but with training in English, Spanish, medieval and Celtic literatures and languages, I found particularly intriguing his chapters on these topics. Far slower for me were the densely detailed opening sections on Near Eastern, Chinese, Sanskrit, and related tongues. Here, too often, my eyes glazed over at the sheer amount of historical minutiae and tangential illustrations. This is the problem with much of this weighty tome: having to re-tell the rise and fall of language powers via their historical dynamics, history has to be recapitulated as well as the linguistic and, to a lesser extent, literary highlights. Jargon is less present than in many linguistic studies geared at a wider audience, but nothing's dumbed down. This book rewards concentration more than the quick dip by the browser, as much of Ostler's argument accumulates as the book continues towards the current rise of global English. Despite a rather uneven pace, due to the sheer difficulty in integrating so much history into so many languages, having a single volume devoted to what Ostler calls "diachronic sociolinguistics" or "language dynamics" (and he names this only on pg. 556, in the penultimate paragraph of the text proper!) is enormously useful for those of us non-specialists who need a compendium.

The encyclopedic and the narrative methods do jostle each other. Once in a while, as in his marvelous analogy of "two sisters," Judith (Hebrew) and Phoenicia (also going by Canaanite, he points out, in other words, the Palestinian predecessor), he finds the clever example to clarify his point. But such moments of inspiration are surprisingly few, and often as not nestled in the footnotes as emphasized in the text. This does make for a tough slog; despite many pages detailing why Aramaic overtook Akkadian, I was never confident that I understood precisely why. And the chapter organization means that some repetition keeps occuring; while cross-referencing helps retention, it does make for some awkward gaps. In the chapter on Greek, little mention of its Renaissance revival and less of its Arab hiatus is made--you have to wait for many pages for another examination of these factors, and it's disappointingly brief.

Yet, as the early modern eras loom, the pace quickens. In the fluid coverage of Spanish, the reasons for its missionary instruction and the need to teach it to adult learners (Merger & Acquisition) rather than the organic way of letting it grow through the native mother's child raising (as many languages do, for often the conqueror's language can lose out in the long run to the native, for the woman and the child tend to transmit the native and not the "foreign occupier's" language on to the next generations in the absence of females from the same first-language background to mate with the men when settling abroad) makes for provocative insights. Even here, however, the book jacket tells us that Ostler's an "expert on the Chibcha language" that yielded in South America to 18c Spanish; we get remarkably little of this story told--one paragraph!

Still, his coverage of English, too complicated to summarize here, shows why a reader needs to slog through so much material; his analysis and prognosis depends upon all of his previous chapters and dozens of earlier linguistic examples. It's instructive, to name only one point, how Germanic English bested British Celtic and Norman French not only due to military power but plague devastation. These observant chapters comprise the most lively part of the book, at least for a native English speaker I suppose. But he does seem rather too blasé, for one who chairs a charity, Ogmios, to assist small-language sustainment, about the fate of threatened language communities; he shrugs that there's nevertheless 6,000 of them remaining. Yes, but he also predicts that half of these have their last speakers alive today. A tie between ecological and linguistic preservation might have illuminated his reflections better, without romanticizing the converse to the cruel calculus that has relentlessly led to language extinction as well as creation throughout the millennia he chronicles so dutifully. His scholarly mien expects dispassion, however.

Ostler's reflections on how native vs. second-language or foreign-language speakers of English will fare as it becomes global and more used as a "lingua franca" [sic] than as a first-language raise many wonderful speculations that I found engrossing and fresh. He opened my eyes to how difficult English orthography is, and how adaptable it still is despite its daunting and growing disjunction between print and speech. The end of this long volume makes the effort in reading it and learning so much--trivia and substance both--worthwhile. (Amazon US 1-16-06 reprise)

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