A Language History of the World

Jane Stevenson reviews Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World by Nicholas Ostler, in The Guardian:

This learned and entertaining book starts around 3,300BC and works forwards. Given that it’s a short history of the last 5,000 years, it is remarkably comprehensive as well as thought-provoking. For most people, learning a first language is so ‘easy’ you don’t remember doing it and picking up others later on is a tedious chore.

It therefore seems reasonable that any time one group of people conquers another, the victors should impose their language, but historically, things haven’t always worked like that. Nicholas Ostler’s aim is to look at why some languages survive and spread, while others, for example the Aboriginal languages of Australia, fail.

He identifies three major paths to success: breed your way to majority status (like Chinese), spread by conquest (like Arabic) or give rise to a popular religion (like Sanskrit). But there is also another aspect contributing to the long-term survival of a language, which is to become classical.

More here.