What is the summary for Empires of the Word by Nicholas Ostler?

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Noelle Thompson eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Ostler gives us a clue as to what his book is about with the full title: Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World. As stated, this book is truly a history of language in the world as we know it. It is not about the structure of language, but is about the "growth, development and collapse of language communities.”

Ostler is just as interested in a language’s eradication as he is in a language’s survival. As the author of this book, Ostler explores some of the earliest attempts via the Middle East when he looks at Sumerian, Akkadian and Aramaic. Ancient Egypt overtakes the first three by being consistent for at least three millennia, but can be compared with the picture-oriented Chinese language with just as much longevity. What follows is two thousand years of invasions that affected language (all of which seem to rise and fall).

If language is what makes us human, it is languages that make us super-human.

In further chapters, Ostler discusses the selfishness of the Greeks and the failure of some languages that were once considered “universal” such as Latin. Spanish, Portuguese, French, and Dutch (even as used in the new land) is discussed as well. A large section of the book focuses on English, of course, which was brought to prominence by the Industrial Revolution via England. Ostler enjoys questioning English’s future, though, mentioning the Chinese birthrate, the Hispanic influence in the American, etc. Language, says Ostler, is definitely the greatest example of our planet’s diversity among its peoples and societies.

As a result of Ostler’s linguistic research, this book can be considered an accurate history of the world as seen through the eyes of words and language.