Saturday, July 10, 2010

Nicholas Ostler's "Empires of the Word"

Ostler's erudition is encyclopedic. All by himself, he wrote this handy one-volume language history of the world, ranging from Sumerian, Akkadian and Aramaic in the ancient world to English in our contemporary scene, discussing Egyptian, Chinese, Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, Spanish, and Russian in the course of his immense story. The narrative is not one of a triumphal march; rather, it is a subtle plotting of the rise and fall of languages, and so puts the current prevalence of English in much-needed perspective.

Throughout the book Ostler is at pains to correct the misconception that empire-building has carried the burden of language spread. Some conquerors in fact adopted the language of their vanquished foes. Even when military might led to language spread, what was more vital for the permanent adoption of the foreign language was the growth of the language community, in which a parent, often the mother, taught the children her native language. The hearth and not the battlefield was where language victories were won or lost. 

Ostler gives four main reasons why an imperial language lives on after the empire disappears. The reasons are self-explanatory: creole (e.g. all the American colonies that became independent from their mother countries in Europe), nostalgia (why French has hung on in sub-Saharan Africa), unity (the take-up of Malay by the newly independent Indonesia), and globality (the many countries that adopt English).  In Ostler's terms, Singapore has retained English for reasons of unity and globality. 

This is a book I will come back to again and again. In my first reading, these special bits stick out:

By their presence, the Phoenician settlements will have spread far and wide a sense of what the cultivated and literate society of the Near East was like, as well as opening up a long-distance export trade in metals. The Phoenicians were the globalisers of Mesopotamian culture. Most concretely, they spread knowledge of their alphabetic writing system to the Greeks and Iberians, and just possibly to the Etruscans and Romans; so they can claim to have given Europe its primary education.
This participation by women, especially princesses and priestesses, in Sumerian literature was not uncommon. They wrote funeral hymns, letters and especially love songs.
The city lifts its hand like a cripple, O my lord Shu-Sin,
It lies at thy feet like a lion-cub, O son of Shulgi.
O my god, the wine-maid has sweet wine to give,
Like her date wine sweet is her vulva, sweet is her wine...

[Pritchard, James B. (ed) Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (1969: 496): Love Song to a King (translated by S. N. Kramer)]


Later on, Sanskrit becomes very wide ranging in its content, including among its most widely known works romantic comedy, theoretical linguistics, economics, sexology (notably the Kama Sutra), lyrical verse, history and moral fables, along with a continuing production of epic poetry and religious and philosophical tracts. It is a very self-conscious literary tradition, full of learned allusions, and above all the most elaborate development of the pun known anywhere on earth.
[My note: one reason of Rushdie's obsessive punning in Midnight's Children and other books?]
Particularly accomplished was Queen Indradevi, consort of Jayavarman VII (who ruled in Cambodia 1180-c.1218): she was a pious Buddhist and taught the Buddhist nuns of three convents. She has left an inscription, in praise of her younger sister, another scholar, who had sadly died young: it runs to 102 verses in several different metres. 
[Majumdar, Ramesh Chandra (1996), Study of Sanskrit in South-East Asia, Calcutta: Sanskrit College, p.19-20]
To the south of the Kievan domain was grassy steppe, dominated in the second half of the first millenium by a series of largely Turkic-speaking nomadic peoples on horseback, who kept arriving from the east, conquering and settling down as the new masters: Avars, Khazars, Bulgars, Magyars, Pechenegs, Kipchak-Polovtsians, Alans, and finally Genghis Khan's Mongols. There was persistent warfare over the period, immortalised in the first surviving work of Russian literature, Slovo o Polku Igoreve, the Lay of Igor's Campaign, set in 1054 and apparently written in the twelfth century:
O Prince, grief has now taken your mind captive;
for two falcons have flown from their father's golden throne
to gain the city of Tmutorokan,
or else to drink of the Don from their helmets.
The falcons' wings have now been clipped by the sabres of infidels,
and they themselves are fettered in fetters of iron...
If we compare English to the other languages that have achieved world status, the most similar--as languages--are Chinese and Malay. Of course, we need to discount the main sources of its vocabulary: English has been in close touch all its short life with French and Latin; and since 1500 the education of very many of its elite speakers has involved Greek too. As a result these three languages have provided the vast majority of the words that have come into the language, whether borrowed or invented. But when the origins of its words--and hence their written look on the page--is set aside, the amazing fact emerges that the closest parallels to English comes not from Europe, but from the far east of Asia.
Like English, Chinese and Malay have Subject-Verb-Object word order, and very little in the way of verb or noun inflexion. Words are simple, and complex senses result from stringing them together. By contrast, all the other languages we have considered have a high degree of inflexion, although Portuguese, in the form in which it established itself in Asia, has most of this stripped away.


Shropshirelad said...

There is one language that has been left out of the list, I think: mathematics.

It is the oldest language in the universe. The one tongue that transcends all others.

sfauthor said...

Nice posting. Do you know about these Sanskrit books?