The rise and fall of the world's languages

Language is the handiwork of billions of people and perhaps the greatest creation of mankind

One of the surprises in the three years that I've been the copy desk chief for this newspaper has been the amount of evidence, in reader mail and elsewhere, of keen interest in language and its uses and abuses.

The past few months have seen a flurry of new books on language that will be useful to all sorts of people interested in improving their own writing and speaking. But this year's spring/summer crop also includes two broad linguistic overviews, one geographic/historical and the other thematic/conceptual, that will advance readers' understanding not just of words and usage but of Language with a capital L.

Nicholas Ostler's "Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World," well over 600 pages with its notes, index, bibliography, and numerous maps, will be the more ambitious read for the amateur linguaphile. But it will be well worth the effort if the goal is to understand the broad sweep of human language around the planet.

Ostler describes his work as a study of what he calls "language dynamics," the rise and fall, the advance and retreat, of languages across the map and the forces behind these changes: cultural prestige, trade, military conquest, religious proselytizing.

It is a work of immense erudition, surveying world's major languages, starting with the Sumerians of the Euphrates valley and concluding with the contemporary hegemony of English. He certainly takes the long view: the 5,000-year-long view, in fact. By the time he mentions the founding of the French Academy, under Richelieu in 1635, that date seems like the day before yesterday.

He finds that what makes a language "successful," in an almost Darwinian sense (he writes about languages as if they were organisms), is less its inherent ease or difficulty and more other factors, such as cultural prestige or the circumstances under which a new tongue is introduced to a community. British colonists in North America, for instance, were much more successful at spreading their language than were their French counterparts because the British came as families. French settlers, by contrast, tended to be single men who went native, rather than passing French on to their children.

Even more than for its strictly linguistic insights, "Empires of the Word" may be useful for its broader observations.

Of the Semitic peoples, Ostler notes, "They never escaped the memory that they had all arisen from desert nomads," and goes on to say, "Nomads may be hard to find in the modern Semitic world. But aspects of nomadism are still central to the unsolved problems of the Arabs: the homelessness of the Palestinians, the moral queasiness about the unearned riches welling up from the desert wastes of Arabia, and wild men of al-Qa'eda in self-imposed exile while they plan destruction for the iniquitous cities. In all this, speakers of Arabic are very true to their tradition. Indeed, the histories of Akkadian, Phoenicians, Aramaic and Arabic are a five-thousand-year demonstration of the benefits of the desert - as a place to come in from."

In "The Unfolding of Language: an evolutionary tour of mankind's greatest invention," Guy Deutscher doesn't mention all the buzz nowadays about "the intelligence of crowds," about "networked" social insects, or other phenomena suggesting that great things can be accomplished without a single mastermind in charge. But he could have.

"Language is mankind's greatest invention - except, of course, that it was never invented," he writes. "This apparent paradox is at the core of our fascination with language, and it holds many of its secrets. It is also what this book is about. Language often seems so skillfully drafted that one can hardly imagine it as anything other than the perfected handiwork of a master craftsman."

In fact, of course, language is the handiwork of the billions of people who use it, and Deutscher identifies several important principles for understanding how language evolves and grows. Language stretches by "analogy," compacts by what Deutscher calls "economy" and stretches again by what he calls "expressiveness." The contemporary French term for "today," aujourd'hui, for instance, began as "hoc die," in Latin - "this day." That compressed to "hodie," which moved into French as "hui," and then was eventually felt to need reinforcement, which led to "aujourd'hui - literally "on the day of this day." Nowadays, even this is sometimes seen to need extra emphasis, and "aujour d'aujourd'hui" is making it into dictionaries, Deutscher reports, albeit with an asterisk to note it as "informal." Contemporary English shows the same tendency: Note how "decision" has led to "decisionmaking," which has yielded to "decisionmaking process."

This book is scholarly, but written with a light touch, as Deutscher explains the historical forces at work on a language; some of the things we fret about as signs of decline of language, and probably civilization as a whole, are just evidence of natural evolution.

If you're a general reader interested in the league standings, so to speak, for the world's major languages, and their prospects for clinching the title, Ostler is your man. If you're more interested in understanding the continuing evolution of your own language, Deutscher might be the more appropriate pick. If you're as hopeless a words nerd as I am, you'll find plenty of interest in both.

Ruth Walker is on the Monitor staff.

More recent offerings at the linguaphile's buffet
Say What You Mean! A Troubleshooter's Guide to English Style & Usage

By R.L. Trask (Godine, $25.95)

A usage guide that will actually be used: Unlike some of the weightier tomes in this field, comprehensive but daunting, this book seems to follow the 80/20 rule by offering a straightforward alphabetical list of terms (assume, presume; imbue, inculcate) writers are especially likely to mangle.

Death Sentences: How Clichés, Weasel Words, and Management-Speak Are Strangling Public Language

By Don Watson (Gotham Books, $20)

Well, Mr. Watson, why don't you tell us what you really think? This book, by an Australian journalist and former political speechwriter, is a wordsmith's impassioned plea to save the English language. The curmudgeon thing has been done before, but by gum, he nails it.

Zounds! A Browser's Dictionary of Interjections

By Mark Dunn, with Copious Cartoon Commentary by Sergio Aragonés (St. Martin's Press, $12.95)

What's not to love in a volume with an entire entry on "ah" and then another on "aha"?

The 100 Words Every Word Lover Should Know

By the editors of the American Heritage Dictionaries (Houghton Mifflin, $4.95)

The latest of the "100 Words" series runs from "aesthetic" to "zenith," and includes a number of words that one actually does see in print, and might even work into conversation.

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