Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World, by Nicholas Ostler

Last year, I learnt from a friend of Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs and Steel (GGS), which attempts to answer one of the unfathomable and persistent questions of our times: why is history the way it is; why are some communities or – in today’s context – some nations affluent and powerful, while others are not? Such questions usually elicit resigned shrugs, simplistic explanations, or get enmeshed in theories of the inherent superiority of the value systems and mental capacities of certain races – as those espoused in the controversial The Bell Curve. Jared Diamond suggests it was ancient environmental and geographical happenstance – the concentration in certain regions of Eurasia of certain nutritious and robust crops, and wild animals that lent themselves easily to domestication – that led to the present day dominance of Eurasian societies and their colonies. Given the depth of the question, critics have accused Diamond of being too deterministic, too dismissive of cultural influences and racial differences and therefore too politically correct (though in one review it was tartly stated that political correctness does not necessarily conflict with the correctness of his theories).

A few months ago I learnt of Nicholas Ostler’s book, Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World, whose sweep is as broad as that of GGS but in the realm of languages: why are some languages so successful while others evanescent; why do some languages, established for long periods of time, perish without a trace while others are resilient? From what I have so far read of this book, the answers are nowhere as clear as in GGS. The factors that decide of the fate of a language are many and depend on the particular language in question. Ostler quashes through convincing examples the belief that the dominance of language can be assured through conquest or political subjugation: the Mongols during their reign very much gave in to the languages and culture of the lands they conquered; Dutch has not been very successful in Indonesia though colonial rule there was as long as that of the British in India. There are plenty of other examples; throughout the book Ostler contrasts languages that followed opposite trajectories.

The chapter on Sanskrit (Charming like a Creeper: The Cultured Career of Sanskrit) is a great read, full of wonderful anecdotes. Ostler follows the language from its beginnings to its zenith when it was popular throughout Southeast, Central and East Asia traveling with its two principal disseminators Hinduism and Buddhism, to its decline during the second millennium after Muslim conquests, and its present limited but steady existence as a liturgical language. Indeed, when as a young child I had unerringly recited, from sheer rote learning, a thousand incomprehensible verses of the Vishnu Sahasranamam, I had been inadvertently sustaining Sanskrit’s liturgical function.

(In the chapter on Sanskrit, I also came across the technical expression for the unique pronunciation of certain alphabets that speakers of South Asian languages are known for and that is partly responsible for their distinctive accent. The sounds t, d, k are often spoken without aspiration with the tongue held against the roof of the mouth. These sounds are due to retroflex consonants, common in many South Asian languages)

Empires of the Word starts with the remarkable conversation between the Aztec king Montezuma and the Spanish conquistador Cortez. It is interesting to speculate on the difficulties of language that both Montezuma and Cortez must have undoubtedly faced. Montezuma spoke in Nahuatl, which was then translated into a particular dialect of Mayan by a Mexican noblewoman; a Spanish priest then translated the Mayan to Spanish. It was 1512, less than thirty years since Columbus’s pioneering effort, the so-called “discovery” of the New World, which would irrevocably set into motion the colonization of the Americas, and which brought about that most peculiar intersection of peoples of Europe and the Americas who had lived apart long enough to have endowed the former with guns, horses, metal implements and diseases, all of which proved cataclysmic for the latter. The conversation between Montezuma and Cortez is but one of the many - in Ostler’s words – “pioneer moments of fatal impact that have happened throughout human history” when “the pattern was set for the irruption of one language community into another”.

Ostler feels that for a language to be taken up by communities other than its own, it needs to have persuasive power. Motives for this persuasive power can be very different, as history has demonstrated: military domination, hopes of prosperity, cultural prestige, attendance at a boarding school among many others. English today has tremendous persuasive power – in India and in many other countries of the world, its persuasiveness is particularly rampant – but the lessons of history show that no language, however widespread and popular it might have been in its heyday, has escaped decline. The argument in favor of English, of course, is that its supremacy coincides with the emergence of a global interlinked culture and for this reason it seems quite impregnable. But the history of languages has always of been full of surprises and one would expect the same of the future.

Empires of the Word is extremely detailed but its great feature is the self-contained nature of its chapters; naturally, it is a good reference for all the major languages in human history. Ostler currently lives in Bath, England, and also manages the following website for endangered languages http://www.ogmios.org/home.htm.

1 comment:

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