An offbeat natural history of language takes readers from the educational and cultural innovators of Sumeria, to the resilience of Chinese, to the global spread of English, in a volume that offers linguistic perspectives on numerous past and present civilizations.
It is clear that the author is deeply knowledgeable on Akkadian, Sanskrit, Nahuatl and Latin, and inevitably some other languages (such as Russian, and the Germanic and Turkic languages) receive a more superficial treatment than they would deserve. The author moves onto noticeably thin ice when he moves out of his area of specialisation and speculates about current or future economic trends (eg concerning Asia), or when he postulates the demise of Russian as a lingua franca because the Central Asian republics speak mutually intelligible Turkic languages (thereby ignoring the fact that the mutually intelligible vocabulary denotes day-to-day matters, and that specialised vocabulary has been created later, from Arab, Persian or Russian sources or by creating neologisms. As a result, these republics predominantly still communicate in Russian with each other, and Russian as lingua franca is still very much alive and well). The author neatly summarises every chapter at its conclusion, which may give some readers an impression of being condescended to (but in any case is to be preferred to excessively hermetic texts or ramshackle trains of thought).
Otherwise, a well-written book and deeply researched that adds a much-needed high-level analysis to the "languages" bookshelf. A keeper, to be consulted again and again.
As it turns out, it's a really complex issue. The book starts with the earliest languages
This is dense, but fascinating stuff.
Only at the very end of the book does Ostler step back from his survey of major languages to try to draw systematic lessons about why some languages succeed and others don't. It was interesting and tantalizingly brief, and I wanted to know more.