Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World by Nicholas Ostler

Second paragraph of third chapter, with bonus Akkadian fable:

The names of civilisations that arose in the ancient Near East now ring with the note of remote antiquity. Three dozen and more are known that flourished in the three millennia from the start of records c.3300 BC until the invasion of Alexander in 330 BC, among them such powers as Babylon, Assyria, Phoenicia, Lydia and Persia. They bring to mind visions of oriental absolutism, breathtaking ruthlessness and gaudy magnificence. Despite their many pretensions, their cultural fertility and sometimes truly universal power, they have left no heirs. Something of this was foreseen by at least one of their own writers:

arad mitanguranni
         annû bēlī annû
umma usātu ana mātia luppuš kimi
         epuš bēlī epuš
         amēlu ša usātam ana mātišu ipuš
         šakna usātu-šu in kippat ša marduk
e arad anāku usātamma ana mātia ul epuš
         la teppuš bēlī la teppuš
         ilīma ina muḫḫi tillāni labīrūti itallak
         amur gulgullē ša arkûti u pānûti
         ayyu bēl lemuttima ayu bēl usāti

Servant, listen to me!
         Yes, master, yes.
I will benefit my country
         So do, master, do.
         The man who benefits his country
         has his good deeds set down in the record of Marduk.
No, servant, I will not benefit my country.
         Do not do it, master, do not.
         Go up to the ancient ruin heaps and walk around.
         See the skulls of the lowly and the great.
         Which belongs to one who did evil, and which to one who did good?

from "the Dialogue of Pessimism", Akkadian.

This fascinating book turned out to be very interesting as paired reading with The Horse, the Wheel and Language. It looks at the history of those languages which have become dominant for a while in areas far from their origins – Sumerian, Akkadian, Phoenician, Aramaic, Arabic, Egyptian, Chinese, Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, Nahuatl, Quechua, Portuguese, Dutch, French, Russian, and English (plus a few others of course) – and asks how this process happens, and also how such languages get displaced by their successors.

He starts with the Middle East, and I probably learned more from this section than from any other. I would have found it difficult to distinguish between the Akkadians, the Assyrians and the Babylonians; now I appreciate the lovely continuity between Akkadian, Aramaic and Arabic, all fairly closely related and the lingua franca of Mesopotamia and far beyond for centuries. The Greek chapter also pulls apart the roles of the different Greek dialects in both literature and politics; again, information that I had been vaguely aware of but packaged here comprehensibly. And it had not occurred to me that Ancient Egyptian survived as Coptic until a few centuries ago.

I particularly appreciated was the account of the linguistic shifts of the Chinese languages. I've found it very difficult to get to grips with Chinese history in the past – the names mean nothing to me and I don't have a good sense of the geography; and I've sensed some writers steering away from the question of internal cultural or ethnic differences in China. Of course, if you approach it through the lens of language, it is impossible to ignore the cultural and ethnic aspects, and equipped with those tools I suddenly found a lot of what I had previous read fitting together much better in my mind. And it's important for understanding how our world will work in the future – Mandarin has about the same number of speakers as the second, third and fourth languages in the world combined (Spanish, English and Hindi/Urdu), and the other Chinese languages are level pegging with major European languages like French and Italian.

The linguistic approach also offers a somewhat different perspective on imperialism and colonisation. It's actually rather rare in historical terms for a language to jump tracks and become a widely spoken mother tongue in places far from its origin. Most of the ancient languages discussed were languages of commerce, religion and/or administration which took a very long time to percolate into the population as a whole; apart from settler colonies, the same is true in more modern times – Dutch is not spoken in Indonesia (and barely in the Caribbean); English may be the national language of India but it is spoken by only 10% of the population. It is relatively unusual for the colonisers' language to completely displace the previous incumbents. English has been lucky twice: when Germanic tribes conquered the Western Roman Empire, Britain was the only province where their language stuck, everywhere else either retaining Latin (or Basque, which had been around for even longer) or switching from Aramaic to Arabic when the time came. Surviving a narrow brush with Norman French, it then became the core language of European settlement in North America. In both cases, depopulation of the indigenous population by plague, helped by ethnic cleansing, appears to have been a crucial factor, as with Spanish in Latin America. (Simple conquest is not enough; cf German and Japanese.) Similarly, Portuguese has Brazil, but none of the other ex-colonies is really lusophone in the same way; as for French, there is no country apart from France where it has a majority of native speakers – not Belgium (38%), not even Monaco (45%).

But Ostler is very far from being an anglophone triumphalist, and takes his last chapter to look ahead at the eventual fall of English as a world language, and to speculate about what might replace it. One would have to bet on Chinese, already an official language or an unofficial language of commerce all round the South China Sea. He makes the point that Chinese, English and Malay/Indonesian have all been helped in their success by rather simple internal structures which make them relatively easier to learn to speak. Chinese, however, is hampered by its writing system which is much more difficult to grasp. I must say I can see English clinging on for centuries to come, as a lingua franca for humanity, even with a relatively decreasing share of native speakers.

(Note for self: I would love to understand why it is that the parts of Moldova which were actually in the Roman Empire are precisely the areas where the non-Romance-speaking minorities, the Bulgarians and Gagauz, are concentrated.)

Anyway, very much worth reading, full of detail and connections which I had not thought of before.