Self-Important Elegy to Greek, Sanskrit, and Chinese Clothed as World History
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on 10 May 2022
Ostler's "Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World" is in actuality very little of what it claims to be. Ostler is neither a linguist nor a historian, as he is quick to mention early in the work as though these two disciplines are beneath him. Instead, he intends to write "the universal study of language history, of which this [book] is a first attempt" (xx). He further contends that "this book is fundamental" (xix). These sweeping claims for his own work aside, the book is really a lamentation on the decline of Sanskrit and Greek as major languages in "new worlds that lie beyond my imagination" (xiv) while the author nervously witnesses the fluidity of people, culture, and language in the real world he resists embracing.
Ostler certainly is learned. His frequent, distracting tangents seek to prove this erudition as though he was showing his notes to a mentor and asking "See? I know this!" His insistent use of Romanized versions of paragraph-long non-English quotations is odd indeed, unless viewed with the lens of insecurity, a constant need to prove. But what is Ostler trying to prove?
A qualitative look at how the book is constructed tells us much about what Ostler is actually saying. Ostler devotes 9 pages in a 559-page book about "the currency of human communities" (9) to the Phoenicians and their alphabet, a derivative of which he uses to compose the book all while spending a chapter discussing the Greek alphabet, writing, and koine, itself a direct, first-generation child of the Phoenician alphabet. Similarly, in a "book as big as this one" (xix), Ostler relegates the entire language history of the pre-Columbian Western hemisphere to just 20 pages. Perhaps most telling, there are zero, yes zero, pages discussing the linguistic history of sub-Saharan Africa.
Over the course of over 500 pages, Ostler is actually sending a very simple message: Ostler enjoys Greek, Chinese, and Sanskrit. He is sad that Arabic is a major world language. He is confused about where Persian actually came from and how the Persian writing system developed. He views cultures as monoliths led by singular "great men," like Alexander, Asoka, and Augustus. He has some peripheral familiarity with language families in contact with his big Grreek and Sanskrit favorites, such as Indo-Iranian, Turkic, Celtic, Latin, but he does not know enough about the ancient Near East, the Americas, or Africa to make educated synthesis about the linguistic history of those falling into the latter category, or especially outside of it. Where are the Austronesian languages? Ostler wishes Greek and Sanskrit still dominated what he considers to be "the world," though this weltanschauung (worldview -- happy, Ostler?) is incredibly narrow, biased, and sometimes flat wrong. This outcome is not worth the reader's slog.
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