A Language History of the World

By Nicholas Ostler

HarperCollins. 615 pp. $29.95

In the contest for survival, do the "best" languages always win? Over the centuries, what decides linguistic victory or defeat? Do hustling traders prevail over conquering forces, whether Mogul hordes, Roman legionnaires or Christian Crusaders -- indeed, virtually all armies until the 20th century? Such forces were, in Winston Churchill's words, more interested in "loot, loot, rape and loot" than in helping the natives converse in Greek, Latin, Manchu or Dutch, but somehow, the Latin of the Romans became the Romance languages: Italian, French, Spanish, Provencal, Romanian and others.

In "Empires of the Word," his wide-ranging history of the world's languages, Nicholas Ostler rates languages by their capacity to survive. He explains, for example, that after Phoenician replaced Aramaic as the prevalent language of Western Asia, it gave way to Arabic; Phoenician was simpler to write, but the sentence structure of Arabic made it easy to learn for people who already spoke Hamito-Semitic tongues in a zone from Morocco to Mesopotamia. On the other hand, Arabic did not come easy for speakers of Indo-European tongues such as Farsi (Persian) or Hindi. So in some regions, Islam triumphed, but the language of the Koran did not.

Ostler is a British professor who is fluent or competent in 12 languages (including an extinct Native American tongue) and was once a postgraduate student of MIT's noted linguist Noam Chomsky. In these pages, he brilliantly raises questions and supplies answers or theories. For example, Ostler cites differing linguistic strategies adopted by imperial powers. French, Spanish and Portuguese empires encouraged the spread of the master tongue; but the British and the Dutch feared that monolingualism would facilitate native resistance and thus encouraged linguistic divisiveness. (Cameroon, notes Ostler, has more than 270 native languages, Nigeria more than 600.) Imperial languages sometimes disappear, but hybrids called "creoles" survive. Among these is Krio, the English-based language used by slaves rescued from European, American and Brazilian ships by the Royal Navy Anti-Slavery Squadron and set free in Sierra Leone after Parliament abolished slave trading in 1806. Another such language -- ki-Swahili, a form of Arabic with a Bantu (African) syntax -- has become a lingua franca in East Africa and, indeed, the official language of Tanzania.

Even as colonial administrators usually insisted that "officialese" be printed in the imperial tongue, missionaries were busy translating the Bible the other way around: into Tagalog, for example, or Yoruba. But diseases introduced by the occupiers helped the spread of their languages. "Spanish" diseases (smallpox, typhoid, influenza, diphtheria and measles) devastated native populations in Central and South America, notably Peru, and favored the adoption of (then Castilian) Spanish. As Ostler observes, "Everywhere, the fact that the previous population was melting away would have materially aided the long-term spread of the conquerors' language, changing the balance in numbers by subtracting predominantly from the speaker communities of the indigenous languages." Of the more than 6,000 languages that still exist, Ostler estimates that half soon will die, as the older generation that speaks them passes on. Celtic languages are no longer spoken in the Danube Valley, where they became written tongues 21/2 millennia ago; more recent Atlantic Gaelic offshoots are dying out in Cornwall, Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Brittany.

In the contest to become the world language, Ostler notes, German might once have seemed a good bet: In the 5th century, German tribes conquered Europe from Ireland to Poland. Yet French has more speakers today than German does. A language of precision, French won favor with Danish monarchy, czarist Russia and the Ottoman Empire for drafting treaties. Until recent times, it remained the language of diplomacy. But English has now become the dominant international language, largely on the strength of its use in commerce. In India, Ostler notes, English is fluently understood by more than half the population between the ages of 15 and 24. It is also the second language for the younger generation in Japan, China, Russia and the European Union. Virtually all Chinese high schools now teach English. How many schools in North America, the British Isles and Australia teach Chinese? Alas, most native Anglophones are hopelessly monolingual.

English also has been spread by communications and industry. Although France's Duc de Broglie developed the first computer in 1923, Americans popularized the device. Although Renault and Citroen invented the automobile (the original French word for the machine survives in English), Henry Ford first produced it on an assembly line. Although Daguerre is often credited as the inventor of photography and the French with having made the first motion pictures, it was Japan that first mass-produced cameras and Hollywood that popularized the cinema.

So what form of English will predominate? The European Union has decided that the best English to teach students is neither the Oxbridge version nor the American one but the Gielgud-Guinness English of the London stage. Why not? After all, it's French as spoken in the Ile-de-France that is taught in European and American schools.