Saturday, May 07, 2011

Empires of the World: A Language History of the World

The rise and fall of languages is often correlated with the rise and fall of empires; however, there are some interesting empires. Amaric was spoken by a large powerless group, yet it became a lingua-franca in the ancient middle east. On the other hand, the rise of Arabic was closely aligned with the rise of the Muslim empire. (However, it was primarily adopted in regions that already spoke Semitic languages.)

The stories of Chinese and Egyptian both have similar histories. Since they both had "pictographic" script rather than a phonetic alphabet, they were able to endure much longer than other languages. Even as the language was undergoing phonetic shift, the pictures could be the same. (Both sets of images that served as the impetus for neighbors to create their own phonetic alphabets.) They also both had fairly dense populations in a well-defined area.

The case of Sanskrit is much different. It spread throughout northern India, and its influence and Hindu religion were spread throughout south India. (Even though the languages were very different, they had a number of Sanskrit lone words.) The further influence was felt throughout southeast Asia, with strong language influence. (Including adoption of local alphabets based on the Devanagari script.)

Other languages have had varying "imperial" fates. Russia carved out a fast area. However, the Russian army tended to be very Russian, and a degree of autonomy was given to subject states. Many of the states dropped Russian once given independence. (However, in sparsely populated Siberia, Russian has maintained its strength.)

European imperial languages seemed to gain the most strength if they had colonizers attached. The "revolutions" in places such as the Americas were often lead by descendants of the original colonizers, rather than the earlier inhabitants.

There are also cases of people that build "empires" yet end up adopting the language of the people they conquer. (The Francs in Europe are a case in point, even though they sacked the Roman empire, they adopted the Latin language. However, they took this language to England, and eventually succumbed to the native tongue - though a plague may have helped out.)

This book is large and dense with many other details of languages. Some areas are extremely interesting. However, it can take a long time to plow through. There is also significant material overlap between this and the author's much more readable Last Lingua Franca.

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