Empires of the Word

Closing out 2011, I just finished an incredible book – Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World by Nicholas Ostler. Just to give you a taste of his fine writing …

“But despite the myth of the Tower of Babel, and its vulgar interpretation as a cautionary tale, language diversity is not a liability for the human race. Most people in the world are multilingual, and everyone could be … Different languages protect and nourish the growth of different cultures, where different pathways of human knowledge can be discovered. They certainly make life richer for those who know more than one of them.” (pg. 558)

Ostler surveys the varied histories of the major languages of the world and how they developed within and between societies.  He counters the argument that language spreads through power or economic necessity only, but instead through “the creation of a larger human community.” In incredible detail he describes the historical developments within a dozen or so language communities, from Sumerian, Akkadian, Arabic, Chinese (the languages that spread by land) to Spanish, Portuguese, and English (the languages that spread by sea).

He closes with a discussion of the future for the top modern languages, especially English. While he avoids prognosticating any bright or bleak futures for our current lingua franca, he argues that the evidence is not solely in favor of English’s continued dominance.  After reading 400 or so pages detailing the histories of languages that once had been the ‘global’ powerhouses of their times, you would probably be inclined to nod your head at Oslter’s statement “For languages, as for any human institution, when you are on top, sooner or later there is only one way to go.”

I started reading this book because of my past interest in language, identity construction, and the former Yugoslavia. Benedict Anderson fans will definitely find a kindred spirit in Ostler. But it is worth reading for anyone interested in the role of language, communication and literacy in societies (i.e., librarians!). He addresses briefly the impact of modern media on English, but as he is taking a broader historical view it isn’t the real purpose of the book.

That broader historical view of language is exactly what I like about the book. He isn’t looking at languages as rigid creations that emerge intact and never evolve. This is what I hate about lists like a post that showed up on Facebook recently, 10 words you mispronounce that make people think you’re an idiot. Granted Bush’s pronunciation of the word nuclear made him sound a wee bit ‘cuntry’, but some of these words have acceptable alternate pronunciations (sherbet and often) based on their evolution in our society. While I understand the drive to promote a more perfect English, especially in written form, at the same time I can’t sympathize with anyone who ignores the dynamic and evolving nature of any language (Never mind the post’s latent point that people who speak with regional accents, primarily rural, are idiotic). But I digress.

Through this fabulous work, Ostler describes the ebbs and flows, the evolutions, and sometimes deaths of our many languages. It is a long book, but well worth the trouble.

Hey librarians! You read, right? #CBR4

Got any 2012 book recommendations? I signed up for Cannonball Read 4 for 2012. 52 books and 52 reviews in a year. Yes, this may be a form of procrastination, and yes, I have a tenure package due and a class to teach and, oh yeah, a real job, but hey, maybe this will be the year I read over 20 books. (I’m looking at you YA! Come on. Make mama proud.)

So, I need some recommendations (over 100 pages, please). Here is what I have on my list so far. You should sign up for CBR4! Lovely Janel is the queen of the CBRs. Check out those lists! Roar!

If I hit 52 books and 52 reviews, maybe I’ll … do … something. Who knows. You can give me recommendations for that too.

Pre-CBR4 and 2011 reading

I signed up for the Cannonball Read 4 for next year. The goal is to read 50 books and write reviews of them. I follow my friend Janel’s reviews and thought it might be fun to try. I’m not the fastest reader (this year I only hit 23 books), but I’m up for the challenge. And I like the idea of writing something short if only for my future reference.

These entries are for my own reference and the CBR4 requirements, but maybe you will find a book that sounds interesting. Here is my first quick and dirty review in honor of the upcoming CBR4 (starts Jan 1, 2012).

The Red Queen by Philippa Gregory

I’ve only finished one other Gregory novel, The Other Queen, and while it wasn’t dreadful I was less than impressed with her writing, especially the voice of Catherine Howard, Henry VIII’s fifth victim. I mean wife. But I love historical fiction in general, especially about British history, so I picked this one up for some fun reading.

The book is set during the War of the Roses and follows the life of Margaret Beaufort, the main heir to the Lancastrian line to the throne. For background on this complex period Alison Weir’s War of the Roses is really good. Gregory does a good job simplifying the history to the main elements needed though and because of that it is a engaging story. She is at her best narrating historical events. I especially liked her description of the Battle of Bosworth Field for the most part.

The downfall of the book for me is the main character. She is unlikeable, self-righteous and delusional. By the end I wanted her son to succeed (which of course he does) just so she would shut up. To Gregory’s credit she engaged me as a reader even with a protagonist I could not stand and for whom I had little sympathy.

The Red Queen is the second in a trilogy, but they can be read out of order. I just got the first, The White Queen, about Elizabeth Woodville from the library. We will see if I like her better.