The history of language, and of the various languages current and extinct, fascinates me. The evolution and spread of a language can tell us much about the history of the language and its speakers. Ancient, even primeval, mysteries are embedded within words. For example, I learned from this book that the word “Albion”, usually referring to Scotland, is probably pre-Indo-European coming from the same root as “Alba” and “Alps”. The original meaning was probably something like “highlands” or “high place”.
Empires of the Word isn’t really about the history of individual languages, except as background information, but about the history of language spread and the interaction between languages and language groups. It is the story of the diverse lingua franca that have been spoken, and written, over the millennia. We hear the story of Akkadian, the first such language, and its relationship with its contemporaries Sumerian and Elamite, and its successors (and sisters) Aramaic and Arabic. And on through other parts of the world, and other centuries.
I learned many things while reading this book:
- There were actually two dialects of Sumerian, one of them spoken only by women.
- Even after Akkadian had been displaced as both a written language and a spoken one in Elam, it continued to be used to write curses. I wonder if this was an insult to the Babylonians and Assyrians, or a backhanded compliment to the power of the language?
- Before the arrival of the Chinese from the Yellow River valley, the language spoken along the Yangtze was related to modern Vietnamese. This should have been a duh, but I’d never actually thought about it.
On the negative end of things, I was rather disappointed that there was no mention of nü-shu, even as dialects of Chinese were discussed.
Also, I think Ostler completely missed the point when discussing why Egyptian was displaced by Arabic and no other language, despite several centuries under various foreign rulers. He danced around it rather nimbly at times, but continued not to see it. To the Egyptians, their writing was sacred.
The elegant and exact pictorial symbols familiar from Egyptian monuments were called (by the Greeks) hieroglyphs, ‘sacred carvings’, translating the Egyptian term …, maduww nātsar, ‘words of god’ (the phrase also used for Ptah’s creative words… (132).
In one of Egypt’s creation myths, Ptah created everything by speaking its name. The written word had the same power. By some strange alchemy, if a thing was written, it became. Egypt made no effort to export its language or its writing system because, I think, it would give foreigners too much power over events.
Christianity, with its characteristic linguistic flexibility in the name of winning converts, adopted Egyptian, in the form of Coptic, in order to convert the Egyptians. And also to differentiate themselves, linguistically, from Egypt’s Jews who spoke and wrote in Greek. Palestinian Jews used Aramaic. Coptic used a Greek derived alphabet instead of hieroglyphics. Arabic, on the other hand, was another sacred language:
Arabic established itself as the language of religion,wherever Islam was accepted, or imposed. In the sphere of the holy, there was never any contest, since Islam unlike Christianity did not look for vernacular understanding, or seek translation into other languages. The revelation was simple, and expressed only in Arabic. Furthermore, Islam was a religion that insisted on public rituals of prayer in the language, and where the muezzin’s call of the faithful to prayer, in Arabic, has always punctuated everyone’s day. Allah akbar, “God is greater” (96).
Sure, there were other, economic and political, reasons for ambitious Egyptians to learn Arabic, but the reason Arabic completely replaced Egyptian, I believe, was because of religion. Jehovah may have replaced Ptah and Isis, but at least his followers spoke Egyptian. Allah’s did not.
Incidentally, and forgive my ignorance, I was not aware that the followers of Zarathustra (corrupted by the Greeks as Zoroaster) were considered “People of the Book.” Why weren’t the Vedas and the Upanishads granted the same status as the Avesta, I wonder?
Anyway, getting off my soapbox and stepping away from the lectern …
Empires of the Word is a fascinating, informative read, though more than a little dry in places. The end was especially snore inducing. Nevertheless, I give it:
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars