Friday, July 08, 2005
On Language 7/6: Languages and their Empires
Nicholas Ostler may be the first author to compare the English language to the ancient Iranian language of Sogdian.
From the 8th to the 15th Centuries, Sogdian was the language of merchants and missionaries along the Silk Road in China and Central Asia. Then it all but died out, giving way to Arabic. Despite its former international commercial dominance, Sogdian is now a footnote of global linguistic history.
Ostler, in his monumental new book “Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World” (HarperCollins, $29.95), is not suggesting English will meet Sogdian’s fate. But his massive overview of major languages in world history puts the current global spread of English in perspective. Throughout world history, even the most stable and widely spoken languages, such as Sogdian, Sanskrit or Greek, faded unexpectedly after periods of seemingly endless prosperity. The linguistic lesson of world history is that no language, however powerful, is a sure bet to live indefinitely.