To the left you see a map of the distribution of languages and language families in Europe. Language is arguably the most salient cultural feature of our species, as well as one of the most obviously biologically embedded. The trait of language is a human universal, to the point where even those without hearing can create their own gestural languages de novo. But the specific nature of language as it is instantiated from region to region varies greatly. Language in the generality is a straightforward utility with which you communicate with your fellow man. But language also separates you from your fellow man.
European nationalism in the 19th and 20th centuries was in large part rooted in the idea that language defined the boundaries of a nation. During the Reformation era some German-speaking Roman Catholic priests declaimed the value of the bond of language against that of religion, praising those non-Germans who adhered to the Catholic cause against German speaking heretics (in the specific case the priest was defending Spanish tercios brought in by the Holy Roman Emperor to put down the rebellion of Protestant German princes). In the long centuries between the Reformation and the Enlightenment the idea of a Western Christian Commonwealth slowly melted in the face of the rise of vernacular, but even after the shattering of Western Christianity with the explosion of Reformations the accumulated capital of a unified Christian European elite persisted. Hungarian Protestant students at Oxford could make do with Latin even if they were totally innocent of English (see The Reformation). Newer lingua francas, French and later English, lack the deep unifying power of Latin in part because they are also living vernaculars. They may resemble Latin in some particulars of function, but eliding the differences removes far too much from the equation to be of any use. Linguistic diversity is a fact of our universe, but how it plays out matters a great deal, and has mattered a great deal, over the arc of history.
This is the subject of Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World. Nicholas Ostler, the author, tackles an enormous subject here. He acknowledges the Herculean nature of his task in the introduction. And yet he does avoid some of the more intractable controversies within historical linguistics by constraining his subject matter to the period of history. That is, where we have some written records. This means that Ostler does not address the origins of the Indo-European language family, or the more recent expansion of the Bantus. Despite being separated by thousands of years these are both in the domain of pre-history, because we have no written records of proto-Bantu or proto-Indo-European. This does not mean that the book is not ambitious all the same. On the contrary, Empires of the Word takes on the “thicker” and messier tangle which is the association between language and fine-grained historical processes, social, cultural, economic and political. How history has shaped the nature and distribution of languages which we see extant in our world today is a labyrinth with many doors. Ostler doesn’t come close to opening the majority of those doors, but those he selects in Empires of the Word yield a rich number of surprises and insights, though he does not in the end seem to be able to generate a Grand Unified Theory of linguistic diversity and change from the welter of details.
There are two parallel threads throughout Ostler’s narrative: description and prediction. The latter is not prediction as a physicist would predict, rather, it is as a historical scientist might. Taking the data and producing models which can plausibly explain the phenomena we describe. Let’s take a look at the top 20 languages in the world . It seems that there are two primary ways that the speakers of a language can become numerous: rice & empire. Such a generalization is a bit glib, as many Mandarin speakers do not live by the “rice bowl,” but the big picture is that some languages gained adherents through “brute force,” pushing inexorably against the Malthusian possibilities of primary production and reproduction and assimilating smaller groups on the wave of advance of the speakers. The Asian languages on this list fall into that category. In contrast, you have the languages which spread with empire, exploration, and colonialism. English and Spanish are the exemplars of this class. Of the hundreds of millions of English and Spanish speakers a majority can not be accounted for simply by demographic expansion of the home countries. Rather, these languages colonized new lands, and acquired new speakers, rather rapidly over the past 500 years. Turkish is almost certainly in this category, though the transition from Greek, Armenian and Kurdish speech in Anatolia is less clearly understood because of thinner textual records of the process.
Of course the distinction between the two is somewhat artificial. The expansion of Mandarin, let alone the Chinese dialects, was almost certainly a synthesis of demographic expansion & migration, and linguistic assimilation of “barbarians.” Han Chinese are a genetically far less homogeneous than the Koreans or Japanese, in large part because the expansion of Han identity occurred over a diverse group of populations which were resident within China proper 2,000 years ago. Similarly, it seems implausible that the Vietnamese ethnically cleansed all the Malay and Khmer speaking populations along the Annamese coast as they pushed toward the Mekong delta. The genetic data in fact hint to a large scale assimilation of Malay Chams by the Vietnamese. Inversely, the rise of English was partially accompanied by the demographic explosion of British peoples, while Spaniards contributed a great deal genetically to the mestizo populations of the New World. So it is not rice or empire, but rice and empire. Albeit with different weights on a case-by-case basis.
“Rice” really refers to social, cultural and economic forces which bubble up from below and swallow up the numerous islands of linguistic diversity. “Empire” connotes the political and military structure which allows for the trickle down from above of imperial values and mores. But the two are also intimately connected. The Chinese state under the Ching Dynasty saw a rapid rise in population, and that rise was enabled in large part due to political stability. That stability fostered long term projects which increased the land under cultivation as well as public works infrastructure which could distribute grain so as to dampen the effect of local shocks. The Greek historian Polybius attributed the resiliency and strength of the Roman state in to its assimilative capacity, turning barbarians into citizens. The military and political resiliency of the Roman Empire through the Crisis of the Third Century was probably conditioned on the expansion of Romanitas from the the Atlantic to the Black Sea (the military core of the revival drew from the Latin speaking regions south of the Danube in the Balkans).
Just as the Roman Catholic Church is sometimes referred to as “the ghost of the deceased Roman Empire,” so the distribution of modern languages are tells of political, social and economic events of the past. Social and economic forces almost certainly loom large in language family explosions which Ostler did not cover, that of the Bantus, the Polynesians and Indo-Europeans. In the first case it seems that the Bantu peoples brought with them a new mode of production to east and south Africa. This was then a rice expansion, along with some genetic assimilation. The case of the Polynesians is more difficult, but the existence of a similar group in Madagascar, attests to the power of long distance seafaring techniques in scattering obscure peoples. Without the existence of Malagasy, both their genetic and linguistic uniqueness, the written record would not clue us in to the existence of an organized community of long distance seafaring Southeast Asians across the Indian ocean basin. Finally, the Indo-European expansion is more mysterious because it is so much further back in time, but it is also the most significant as nearly half the world’s population speaks an Indo-European language. David Anthony in The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World makes the case that a shift toward nomadic pastoralism enabled by the horse is the critical catalyst for the sweep of this language group from the Atlantic to the Bay of Bengal.
Though the Indo-European case is likely an ancient one Empires of the Word actually begins its story earlier. Ostler’s in depth knowledge of ancient Near Eastern linguistic history is frankly mind-blowing, and is arguably the most insightful and novel spin on the topic I’ve ever encountered. The extent of detailed and subtle grasp of the facts is awe inspiring. I did not know, for example, that the Elamites of southwest Iran once had their own writing system, which they eventually abandoned for Akkadian cuneiform. Ostler recounts the life-after-death which Sumerian experienced for over 1,000 years because of the nature of cuneiform itself, which was fitted to the Sumerian language, a linguistic isolate with no known relatives. For the last thousand years of cuneiform it was written in Akkadian, the first great Semitic language in the world, later to be succeeded by Aramaic, Punic, Hebrew, and Arabic. Parallel to the waxing and waning of these antique Semitic languages was the ebb and flow of ancient Egyptian, with its own peculiar form of writing.
One aspect of these ancient societies and their languages is the almost cold-blooded torpidity with which change occurred. Sumerian persisted as a liturgical language in what became Babylonia down to the Roman and Parthian period, 3,000 years of written history. The social-political entity which we term ancient Egypt arguably spanned 2,500 years, up until the final Persian conquest. Egyptian culture in a sense that the Pharaohs would recognize persisted for another 1,000 years, until the closure of the Temple of Philae under the orders of the Christian Emperor Justinian in the 6th century. This cut the last link with the literature and religion of ancient Egypt. Consider that the time between our own era and that of Jesus Christ is equivalent to that between the rise of the Egyptian polity and its decline in the late Bronze Age. Though there are certainly similarities between Paul of Tarsus and a modern Western man, a great many disruptions have broken chains of cultural continuity.
There may be one exception to this, and that is another language which arose just as Egypt went into decline, and that is Chinese. Classical Chinese in its written form remained relatively static between the ancient period of the first dynasties, and the early 20th century. This continuity is telling insofar as Western scholars never had to “discover” the history of the Chinese, they had always remembered it. The continuity of language, culture values, and political and ethnic identity, dovetailed together so that despite the reality that the architecture of China is ephemeral, its stories are not. In contrast, much of the literary corpus of the ancient Western world comes down to us only because of three intense periods of copying: the Carolingian Renaissance, 10th century translations in the Byzantine Empire, and the Abbasid translation project in the 9th century. The history of the societies before Greece was perceived only obliquely through the Bible and the classical authors. Modern archaeology and linguistics eventually unlocked the secrets of both hieroglyphics and cuneiform, but the reality that we did not know of the significance of the Hittites in the ancient world attests to the poverty of knowledge which lack of cultural continuity imposes (the great disruption between the Indus civilization and pre-Maurya India means that the script of the former remains lost to us).
The distribution and continuity of dead languages also is a signpost for that other aspect of human culture which is very powerful and ubiquitous: religion. Today most of the Latin spoken is “Church Latin,” and that is because of the languages sacred role within the Roman Catholic Church. Though Hebrew is the spoken language of the secular state of Israel thanks to a modern revival, for nearly 2,500 years it was a language of religion only, as the Jews adopted the languages of the people amongst whom they lived, Aramaic, Greek, Persian, Arabic, Latin, German, etc. The ancient languages of the Near East, Coptic from ancient Egyptian, and Syriac from Aramaic, persist as liturgical languages. It seems that so long as the gods do not die in the minds of believers the tongues of the ancients persist down the ages. So next to the language of rice and empire, you have languages of the gods.
As I indicated above Empires of the Word is rather thin on robust generalizations. But one point which the author mentions repeatedly is that the rise and fall of languages of great expanse and utility is the norm, not the exception. In particular, Nicholas Ostler takes time out to emphasize that languages which spread via trade often do not have long term staying power. Portuguese, Aramaic, Punic and Sogdian would fall into this category (the later success of Portuguese was a matter of rice and empire in Brazil). It seems that mercantile communities are too ephemeral, that successive historical shocks inevitably result in their decline when there isn’t a peasant demographic reservoir or imperial power which imposes it by fiat. Even those languages which eventually spread beyond traders and gain cultural and political cachet may fall from grace. Greek is the best case of this. It was the dominant language of the Roman East, and spoken as far as modern Pakistan, and studied in Dark Age Ireland. By the early modern period it was a strange and foreign language in the West, and with the rise of Islam in the east it lost its cultural glamor, and even those Christians in Arab lands who were Melkite, Greek Orthodox who adhered to the theological position of Constantinople, became Arab in speech and identity (in greater Syria the Greek Orthodox have been instrumental in the formulation of Arab nationalism).
And yet to some extent one must be cautious about over-reading the recession of Greek in the face of Arabic after the rise of Islam. Ostler repeats the conventional wisdom that the predominant vernacular in the Roman East was never Greek, but rather Semitic dialects descended from Aramaic. This is manifest in the fact that the Oriental Orthodox churches do not use Greek in their liturgy, but forms of Syriac. Their root is in an alternative intellectual tradition from that of the Greek Church. The transition to Arabic was then predominantly from a closely related Semitic language, not from Greek. One of the theses to explain the spread of Arabic across North Africa, but not into Persia, is that Arabic found it easier to replace other members of the Afro-Asiatic language family. I can accept that people can intuitively perceive differences of language family without a deep knowledge of said languages. In Sons of the Conquerors: The Rise of the Turkic World it is recounted that an ambassador to the court of the Hapsburg Emperor in Vienna communicated to the Sultan that apparently the locals spoke a dialect of Persian! Persian and German are of course both Indo-European languages, and set next to Turkish they may sound vaguely similar.
This thesis is plausible to me, and I have long held to it in regards to Arabic’s replacement of Aramaic. I have been told by a friend who is familiar with both languages (in addition to Hebrew) that they are rather close, and if not intelligible close enough to make language acquisition much easier. But Ostler extends the argument much further, suggesting that genetic affinity also explains the replacement of Egyptian and Berber dialects in North Africa. These are Afro-Asiatic languages, but they are not Semitic. I assume linguists do perceive similarities of character which can connect these languages, but what features span the Afro-Asiatic languages which would make language acquisition easier even at this remove of relationship? The Afro-Asiatic theory for the spread of Arabic is somewhat convenient in that it does explain the data well: Arabic has spread widely only in regions of other Afro-Asiatic languages, the exception being in Spain. And in Spain the Mozarab dialect had a stabilized existence with the Romance language of the rural areas, which eventually came back in the form of Castilian, Portuguese, etc. What Nicholas Ostler seems to be proposing is that the world of language acquisition is not flat. This is clearly true for closely related languages, but I think the thesis needs to be explored for distantly related languages from the same family. Does a native speaker of Marathi have a leg up on a Hungarian when it comes to learning Gaelic? I remain skeptical of the affirmative in that case.
So Empires of the Word outlines some broad generalizations of how languages grow, which seem born out by the record of history, and offers some more speculative theories about the importance of the cultural terrain upon which languages can flow and spread. But the narrative also lingers long on the future of the current lingua franca of our age, English. Nicholas Ostler does nothing to dismiss the omnipresence of English at the commanding heights of international culture. He reports for example that in 1994 50% of international telephone calls were between English speakers. 45% were between English speakers and those who were not English speakers! That means only 5% of international calls in 1994 were cases where people neither spoke English as their native language. I suspect that the numbers have changed a bit since then, but if that study is correct then it points to the awesome international spread of the English language. But Nicholas Ostler does not think that it will last, and his rationale seems to be the record of history, where such universal languages always fall. His next book, The Last Lingua Franca: English Until the Return of Babel outlines his thesis in detail.
And yet contra Ostler I have to suggest that perhaps this time it’s different. I do not believe that English in a unified form will dominate all. Already there has been considerable dialect drift. But the past 200 years are qualitatively different from what has come before, and there is already a revolution in communication technology. It may be that in the future languages do not crystallize as a function of geography, but perhaps more as a function of class and occupation. It does seem historically that trade lingua francas have been ephemeral in impact, and English, the language of McWorld, is the language of capital. But the modern world is much more dependent on flows of capital and commerce than the pre-modern world, the Sogdians and Portuguese were primarily vectors for high value luxury goods. Pre-modern capitalism had the air of a parlor game between the high and mighty, and was quite often in bad odor among rentier elites themselves. It is with reason that I observed above that the pace of cultural change in the past was less than what it is today. Positive feedback loops may be much more powerful than they once were, so that a “Globish” derived from English may quickly sweep away all comers, before it diversifies again.
But really I should wait for Ostler’s new book. The arguments I make here may be addressed, or I may misunderstood what I gleaned from Empires of the Word. It is as I said a story with rich and vibrant detail, much of which I glossed over, or did not address. For that Ostler’s tale is worth the time it takes to complete it. But there is I must say a lack of theoretical punch and heft. Perhaps this is just a function of the subject domain, which has too much complexity to distill down to any model of elegance or tractability. But I suspect a more rigorous analytical framework could squeeze some juice out of the enormous pile of detail which Nicholas Ostler has at his disposal. Perhaps he should read Replicated Typo.
Image Credit: Wikimedia, Ethnologue