Empires of the Word

Nicholas Ostler has a new book out: The Last Lingua Franca: English Until the Return of Babel (2010). In it, he argues that English, today’s global lingua franca, will die out, following the pattern of former great languages Sanskrit and Latin. He comments in an Observer article: ‘At the moment, English-speaking groups are very much in their ascendancy, but there is only one way to go from an ascendancy.’ The book synopsis also cautions: “the last competitive advantage of native English-speakers will soon be consigned to history.”

I thought this is a good time to revisit Ostler’s brilliant book, Empires of the Word, published in 2005. For obvious reasons, I was particularly interested in his discussion of the Chinese language. Below is a brief blog post written on 15th September, 2009.

Chinese, the only existing language that still uses its original writing system. Chinese, the language now spoken by one fifth of mankind. Be proud if you speak it; be jealous if you don’t.

But how long will Chinese last? Will it share the sorry fate of the Egyptian language? It is all about ‘political conquest’ now. Do you think this is scary?
Some quotes from Nicholas Ostler’s Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World (2005):
“All the languages whose careers we shall consider have written histories that extended back over a thousand years, and sometimes two or three times this long. In almost every case, literacy is a skill that was learnt from visitors or neighbours, and then became part of a language’s own tradition. As it happens, with the exception of Chinese, even the languages that originated writing, and so made the earliest use of it, have dropped their original system, and borrowed another.” — p. 11

“By ancient standards, then, the density of population in Egypt and China was something truly exceptional. This too must have supported the long-term stability of their languages. The sheer numbers of speakers in their populated regions gave them immunity against swamping by incomers speaking foreign languages, even when they could not deny them entry. Strength in numbers reinforced languages already buttressed by their cultural prestige, and the robust institution of a monarchy endorsed by heaven.

The self-sufficient, resilient character of Egyptian and Chinese is revealed in many situations where they, or their speakers, had to interact with foreigners and their linguistic traditions. These dense, centralised societies were not always impervious to foreigner influence, even in the representation and use of their own languages. But for millennia they had sufficient equipoise, or sufficient inertia, to keep the outsiders under their own cultural control.

In the reminder of this chapter, we shall consider three aspects of their cultures where foreigners were bound to have an impact: the history of writing, their knowledge of and attitudes to foreign powers, and their responses to invasion. In every case, the languages’ steady continuity depended on a resolute refusal to see themselves, or conduct themselves, on others’ terms.” — p. 153
“Gradually losing aspects of its historic centre, in the form first of its monarchy, then of its political independence, then of its own national religion, and finally of its national form of Christianity, Egyptian weakened steadily over the ages, and has now, as a language simply recited in formal liturgy, come close to disappearing altogether. If the analogy is valid, Chinese, despite its billion speakers, might consider that it too has now entered on a perilous path. To accomodate the challenge from the modern, European-inspired, world, it has already given up the link with its own monarchy, an ideal with which it had identified for over two millennia. It has not given up its political independence, but it has, at least officially, resigned its own religion: since the fall of the monarchy, it has no longer actively sustained the value of Confucian, much less Taoist, ideas.

China’s political independence may yet save its language from the downward side of Egyptian. And even under foreign rule, Chinese has shown itself much more resilient, and indeed absorbent, than Egyptian ever was in its last two millennia. It has the advantage, which Egyptian never had, not just of high density but also of vast absolute population size. In its written mode, there is nothing yet in the history of Chinese to compare with Egyptian’s loss of its indigenous writing system and adoption of the Greek script, though romanisation may yet come.

In sum, the cultural retreats that we identified as leading to Egyptian’s demise all have their analogues in the recent history of China, except for political conquest. The writing may already be on the wall for the language now spoken by one fifth of mankind.” — p. 172-173
4 Responses “Quotes of the day” →
September 16, 2009
Hi Tammy
Thanks for the quotes, this looks like an interesting book. Chinese is a great language and I’m definitely jealous of those who can speak it.
I’m so pleased that my kids are in a Chinese school, though I get told all the time by foreigners (and even by some Chinese) that it’s a waste of time. I want them to embrace their heritage and be proud of it.
Shadowy figure
September 16, 2009
Romanization is inevitable, but sheer inertia of tradition will keep the Chinese writing system alive for hundreds of years. And after that, it’ll not be forgotten like the ancient Egyptian script.
(I once found an interesting reason why Japanese and Chinese students tend to perform so well in academic endeavours: if they can learn their writing system, everything else is a breeze.)
September 16, 2009
The Chinese language has survived for so long because, for much of the past millennia, China never encountered an equally or more advanced culture, unlike the Egyptians who faced the Greeks and Romans. Indeed China was conquered many times in history (Mongols, Manchus etc) but its cultural leadership in East Asia was unchallenged. Conquerors were “sinicized” and many of them adopted the Chinese writing system (some of them never had their own writing system in the first place). And China, geographically isolated from the west, had believed itself to be the world’s dominant culture for thousands of years until its contact with, and military defeat in the hands of, the Europeans in the 19th century.
It is China’s loss of cultural leadership that causes its writing system to come under threat.
September 16, 2009
Probably the worst battering that the script took during that time occurred when the Communists simplified the characters into ungainly representations of the earlier pictographs.

2 thoughts on “Empires of the Word

  1. Ankur said: “Don't understand here what the writer means. As an example, Hindi is written in the same Devanagari script that it has been since millennia; I don't see which original system changed. Also, Sanskrit was always like a mother language which gave birth to a lot of Prakrit offshoots, including Hindi; because of the power structure of ancient India, it was never a language of the masses, and hence it was a great language in terms of its fecundity, rather than being a “live” language at any point of time in history. In many ways, it was always a dead language. And in many other ways, it is still a very much alive language. People should get their history right, I guess, before hazarding on such misleading publications.”


  2. Ankur, I looked at Empires of the Word again and I don't think Ostler was in any way neglecting the history and development of Sanskrit. In fact, there is an entire chapter in the book devoted to it (Ch. 5) whereas Chinese is shared with Egyptian in one chapter (Ch. 4).


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