Empires of the Word : A Language History of the World

by Nicholas Ostler

Hardcover, 2005



Call number




HarperCollins (2005), Hardcover


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.

Media reviews

It’s a history of all languages – some have called it a macro-history. The ambition of this book is really extraordinary. There have been lots of histories of English, and there are lots of histories of other languages in those languages, but actually to try and write a history of the whole of
Show More
language is an incredibly audacious thing, and Ostler pulls it off.
Show Less
2 more
A marvelous book, learned and instructive.
This is a great book. After reading it you will never think of language in the same way again - and you will probably think of the world, and its future, in a rather different way too.

User reviews

LibraryThing member MeditationesMartini
Tour de force! Not a perfect book, no, but only in the sense that nothing is perfect in this imperfectest of all worlds. He drops in and out of giving those all-important pronunciation guides, which start out making the book seem so immaculate. And the whole project of "world language history" is
Show More
so macro that the later chapters, on French and Russian and English especially, have a bit of a survey-of-familiar-ground-with-tidbits feel. But these are small, not to say churlish, objections. This book is huge, with amazing sweep. It provides a theoretical framework that is fresh and of utility to the scholar as well as the armchair historian and/or pedant. It gives you the joy of getting new sounds and strange civilizations into your head, helps you understand the contingencies and the might-have-beens, and delivers up worlds beyond your imagination. And hell, I like the linguistic essentialism of "Arabic’s austere grandeur and egalitarianism; Chinese and Egyptian’s unshakeable self-regard; Sanskrit’s luxuriating classifications and hierarchies; Greek’s self-confident innovation leading to self-obsession and pedantry; Latin’s civic sense; Spanish rigidity, cupidity, and fidelity; French admiration for rationality; and English admiration for business acumen," and if that makes me a shameless modernist, well, (it doesn't, but) so be it. This book makes me feel very good about an MA in English language, and I learned a lot more along with the affirmation than I would have from PAolo Coelho or "Tuesdays with Morrie."
Show Less
LibraryThing member fist
This book takes a meta-meta-level analysis on "A History of World Languages" (which would have been a more accurate title), looking at languages that have dominated large swathes of the earth for the last 4000 years, and the reasons behind that dominance, be they political, economical, social or
Show More
other. The author then tries to identify common features of the success and eventual decline of these languages, finally applying these factors to a forecast for the current dominance of English.
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.
Show Less
LibraryThing member sabreader
Fascinating history of major languages going back to the earliest written records in the Middle East, South Asia, East Asia, Europe, and the Americas. Ostler attempts to explain why some languages succeed and others don't, in terms of increasing number of speakers and spreading into new
Show More
territories. The explanations are somewhat convincing but very uneven. Sometimes he seems to be rushing just to cover stuff, in particular the chapter on European languages other than English. And while he knows his languages, the interpretation of history is perhaps a bit spotty, especially as we get to the 20th century. That said, this was a good read. I learned a lot about non-European languages and their spread, as well as about the process of the spread of Germanic and Romance languages in Europe.
Show Less
LibraryThing member thierry
In the end, achieves nothing. Attempt at a sweeping, encyclopedic and truly monumental overview of the world's major languages and linguistic families. In a mix of linguistics and history, traces their origin, evolution and future. Much information contained therein, some language groups stronger
Show More
than others but the author over-reaches, does not offer enough, is not illustrative in his examples, and is unfortunately unclear at times. Much was expected of this book, much was promised, but ultimately, achieves little. Hence the rating.
Show Less
LibraryThing member Shrike58
Ostler is at his best when writing about "classic" languages such as Sumerian, Sanskrit, Greek, or Chinese, and why they were influential. When he's writing about modern languages and their desemination this book comes off more as a potted history of Western imperialism, in regards to pointing out
Show More
the limitations of force and power in terms of spreading a language. This is apart from good observations on the nature of English and the fall of Latin.
Show Less
LibraryThing member hailelib
I really enjoyed this book, even more than I expected that I would. About three (?) years ago I had it out of the library and managed to read the first section or about 20% of the book. It was very slow going because so much of the history was either new to me or not quite remembered from years
Show More
before and I had done almost no reading on how languages develop and change. So I ran out of time (no more renewals) and took the book back to the library with the intention of checking it out again some day. Well that day finally came after much reading in language, history, etc. in my 888 and 999 challenges, This time Ostler's book was much easier to read and still a fascinating study of the history of the world's major languages, past and present. It also dovetailed rather nicely with the book by Joseph Campbell that I was reading concurrently.

Highly recommended.
Show Less
LibraryThing member lothiriel2003
Seemingly exhaustive survey of the history of languages around the world. Written mostly for the expert. I, being only mildly interested in the topic, soon got bogged down. A more popular version of this book (without all the niggly detail) could have been written in 300 pages rather than 560! The
Show More
parts I did understand, I enjoyed and will admit to skimming a lot of the rest, thankful that there was not a test at the end!
Show Less
LibraryThing member HadriantheBlind
An impressive and sweeping view of the history of languages throughout human history. It tackles some of the big questions: Why do some languages die out? Why do some flourish, like Chinese or English?

As it turns out, it's a really complex issue. The book starts with the earliest languages
Show More
(Sumerian, Akkadian, etc.) and moves all the way up through the colonial and modern eras, and speculates on the rise and fall of our languages in the future.

This is dense, but fascinating stuff.
Show Less
LibraryThing member annbury
Very enjoyable work of linguistic history (NOT historical linguistics) that looks at how and why some languages came to be used by millions of non-native speakers, while others remained firmly stuck in their own back yards. Impressively well researched with a heavy reliance on contemporary sources,
Show More
very well written, and thought-provoking from both linguistic and historical perspectives.
Show Less
LibraryThing member danawl
very detailed, exhaustive, fascinating
LibraryThing member DinadansFriend
I think this a superior production, and Mr. Ostler seems to know his business. There are even some hints about how a tongue can connive towards its own longevity.
LibraryThing member ashleytylerjohn
Oh dear--I had such high hopes--and I really do love the occasional academic treatise. This just wasn't compelling, despite in the abstract sounding like a slam dunk for me. Eventually I realised one day I will die, and I'd rather have read something else. It's really, really specific, technical,
Show More
and historical, and despite all the drama and romance that the subject could have had, it was about as gripping as reading about how General Motors occasionally changed their car designs, and how. No, not even car designs, less interesting, um, let's say how they changed their engine. That sort of thing. I think there's a nice opportunity for somebody to write a 250 pager on the same topic, but with more general appeal.
Show Less
LibraryThing member Colby_Glass
Filled with details and trivia. Very interesting.
LibraryThing member krista.rutherford
If you, like me, are interested in linguistics and big-picture world history, this is the book. Looking at the history of world powers not in terms of political boundaries but of groups defined by common languages reveals a lot about where power truly lay and how different peoples identified
Show More
themselves and influenced each other.
Show Less
LibraryThing member lwobbe
One of the best books I've ever had the pleasure of reading. Engaging way to learn history - through the spread of language : even when the conquerors rule, sometimes their language does not. an ancient language may live on in official documents long after it has ceased being used in conversation.
Show More
Author critiques our worship of "the classic" texts, and the conclusions we have based on them. Has he written a book on that topic alone? Would love to see that, too!
Show Less
LibraryThing member melissagemmerjohnson
Fascinating account of the development of world languages. The best overview I have found - detailed and knowledgeable without being dry.
LibraryThing member vguy
a world history through the major languages. Just my kind of tome: learned but written in a worn-lightly way. The languages come across almost like living people. The section on Greek is especially fascinating. Witty ironies here and there about what makes languages, cultures, powers survive or
Show More
fade. Think Oswald Spengler or Arnold Toynbee if they'd tried to do standup at the Ed Fringe.
Show Less
LibraryThing member drmarymccormack
I'm very interested in this subject but this book is dry. How about some prose and a couple of interesting asides?
LibraryThing member 100yards
useful and informative
LibraryThing member dhmontgomery
An interesting linguistic history of some of the world's biggest languages — why they rose, why some of them fell, and why they didn't experience other paths. Full of interesting tidbits, such as the surprising persistence of indigenous languages in the Spanish North American colonies we think of
Show More
as monolithically Spanish-language today, or the question of why some languages (English, Mandarin, French) spread while others (German, Russian) don't even when speakers of those languages exert political and military control. (Speakers of Germanic languages overran the entire western Roman Empire; in no place but Britain did a Germanic language take outside of Germania.)

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.
Show Less


Original publication date


Physical description

624 p.; 9.21 inches


0007118708 / 9780007118700
Page: 0.1773 seconds