Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World


How did the languages we come to speak to day evolve? Where did they come from? Why have some languages flourish, while countless other vanished with out a trace and thousands more are at the brink of extinction?

I came across a description of this book in one of the HTLAL language forums, a website for language learning enthusiasts I like hanging out in. When the I read it I asked my wife to buy it that very day (she does the shopping between us two). I usually mull over buying a book I might like for weeks or even months (unless I’m in a physical book store and something catches my eye) but this was exception. ‘I’ve been wanting to read a book just like this’ I told her.

Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World tells the story of the spread of the major languages in the world in recorded history. In he books he traces the rise and fall of civilizations and the languages that accompany them, such as Arabic, Latin, Sanskrit and Chinese. The author makes it clear that the scope of the book is confined to history meaning having a source in written records. The author talks about factors that have made languages of civilizations successful, and that have left languages to stay only in historical records.

The copious amount of foot notes are however distracting to read. I suggest anyone wanting to read the book primarily for pleasure not to race to the bottom of the page to check out a footnote, but only if the footnoted term is particularly interesting to you.

The book opens with the story of the meeting of the Spanish Conquistador Hernán Cortés (1485 – 1547) and the Aztec Emperor Moctezuma II (c. 1466 – 1520), which at once reminded me of Jared Diamond’s well-known book Guns, Germs and Steel, and provides first-hand accounts from both sides (particularly the translation difficulties). I am particular interested in this historical incident having read a biography of Hernán Cortés when I was a kid.

The Phoenician alphabet used in inscriptions older than around 1050 BC is the oldest verified alphabet and the mother of all alphabets used in the world
The Phoenician alphabet used in inscriptions older than around 1050 BC is the oldest verified alphabet and the mother of all alphabets used in the world

One fact which thrilled the language geek in me was the revelation that all alphabets in the world stemmed from the Phoenician alphabet.

There are lots of extremely interesting stories nestled in the book, like how Dominican missionaries had to learn native languages over using Spanish.

The book ends with a prediction on the top twenty world’s major languages for the next 50 years.

There’s a lot of more very detailed reviews of the book on its Amazon page here. Some of the reviews here I could even call synopses.

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