Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Languages Around the World

A bit late, but the Guardian reviewed Nicholas Oster's Empires of the World: A Language History of the World, which should make interesting reading for the linguistic set. At least he gets the anthropological angle correct: language (and tool use) are probably the defining characteristic of our species, and therefore, humanity en sensu lato.

In defence of the centrality of language in human history, Ostler argues that it is language that enables people to form communities and to share a common history: indeed, by the very act of the old teaching the young to speak, language is also central to the establishment and reproduction of tradition. He describes very well how languages reflect and articulate the cultures and histories of different communities: indeed, unless you speak the vernacular, it is impossible properly to understand another people. From his rich picture of why major languages have waxed and waned, it is clear that there is no single model: on the contrary, while Ostler does his best to categorise and conceptualise, there are in fact almost as many models as there are languages. For all the hubris about the rise of English and how it will rule the world's tongues for ever, it is sobering to reflect on why languages that in their day seemed utterly irresistible in their dominance and prestige, spoken across large regions of the world for thousands of years, were eventually eclipsed.

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