The history of a language is more than just a study of its technical aspects - its grammatical foibles, its vocabulary, its origins. It is also a history of its speakers, their migrations and conquests, their prestige and power, their culture, traditions and, very often, their demise. Thus Empires of the Word is more than just a history of the world's great languages: it is also, through those languages, a history of the world.
Nicholas Ostler is the first writer to attempt such a universal language history. Forced to set limits - there are more than 6,000 languages spoken in the world today - he has confined himself to languages that have been written down and which have spread geographically. In The Adventure of English, Melvyn Bragg surveyed the transformation of our own language over 1,500 years; Ostler places English in the context of other tongues, ranging from the Semitic dialects of the fertile crescent (spoken 5,000 years ago), via Arabic, Egyptian, Chinese, Sanskrit, Greek, Latin and Celtic, to the languages most commonly spoken today. He uses languages and the interplay between them to study the world not as a collection of political units, but as "language units", the fortunes of which rise and fall in a Darwinian "language struggle".
It makes good sense to consider the world from a linguistic perspective. A common language gives people not only a means of communication, but also a peg on which to hang their identity, their shared history and sense of future. Most nation states are recent impositions on top of much older linguistic communities. The Basques have been fighting for years to reunite their ancient linguistic unit, which straddles the borders of modern France and Spain. And Britain and America's "special relationship" is based above all on a shared language.
How have these communities been created? Why have some flourished while others languished? How do languages migrate? Why does a language succeed here but fail there? Why, for example, did Latin leave little trace among the English, while becoming so deeply embedded in the consciousness of other west Europeans that the Romance languages of today - Italian, Spanish, Catalan, Romanian, Portuguese and many more - are less different from Latin than modern English is from medieval English? On the other hand, why was England the only place outside Germany where Anglo-Saxon triumphed so comprehensively?
In the case of Anglo-Saxon, Ostler speculates that the answer could be the plague. It is likely that after the Romans left Britain, a swathe of the British population was wiped out, leaving a linguistic void in which Anglo-Saxon gained a foothold, in a way that was impossible on the Continent. In other cases, Ostler admits that he does not know the answers. Although he can trace the migrations of languages across the globe, he may not always understand them.
The most important factors in the spread of languages have generally been conquest, migration, economic might and religion. Religion has been crucial in the spread of Arabic, because according to Islamic teaching the revelation of God can be expressed only in Arabic. The Reformation, and the growth of printing that accompanied it, accelerated the decline of Latin and boosted vernacular languages such as German. But to succeed, what a language needs above all is prestige, or the ability to attract speakers. The flourishing of American English in, say, south-east Asia has been largely to do with its glamour and its promise of riches; the United States of America has not deliberately set out to spread its language. In British India, English was not imposed officially, and remained the language of a minority; nevertheless, learning English was regarded as a form of advancement, even among Indian nationalists. Oddly, things were different in Indonesia, which was administered by the Dutch for just as long as the British administered India, because the Dutch were content to use the local Malay for administration and religion.
As well as examining how cultures help to spread languages, Ostler considers how languages affect culture. In many cases, the destiny of a people has been altered by misunderstandings arising from the clash of two languages. In 1840, delegates from the British government met Maori chiefs in order to sign the Treaty of Waitangi, which ceded New Zealand to the British crown. Largely because they were lost in translation, the terms of the treaty quickly became the subject of dispute, and are still wrangled over today.
Empires of the Word is such an ambitious and well-researched book that non-experts may need to take a deep breath before plunging in. However, Ostler keeps things going with plenty of anecdotes and interesting facts. Did you know that the word "Semitic", as a family of languages which includes Hebrew, stems from the name Shem, second son of Noah, and was not applied linguistically until 1781? Or that Sumerian, an extinct Semitic language, had a special dialect for use only by women? Or that the clay patties on which these languages were written have survived only because they were baked in the fires started by Alexander the Great's conquering soldiers? Empires of the Word also has an unusually good range of maps, and is full of well-chosen quotations, such as this delicious Sumerian poem from 5,000 years ago:
Thy city lifts its hand like a cripple, O my lord Shu-Sin,
It lies at thy feet like a lion-cub, O son of Shulgi.
O my god, the wine-maid has sweet wine to give,
Like her date-wine sweet is her vulva, sweet is her wine . . .
Most of the quotations are presented in their original scripts with all their intriguing peculiarities - dots here, dashes and squiggles there.
Besides looking back to the origins of the written word, Ostler speculates about the future. In 50 years, he argues, Chinese will probably still be the most widely spoken language, while English, at least as a native language, might have stagnated. The dwindling of populations in countries that use English may result in it becoming the mother tongue of older people, causing it to lose some of its dynamism and charisma. English may also be threatened by immigration - of Spanish speakers in North America and south Asians in Britain. Bilingualism could grow, and dialects of English drift apart, while at the same time English may spread as the lingua franca of the internet and business. Yet even that is not assured. As Ostler warns, one day the terms of trade may be very different, and businessmen are notoriously unsentimental. In which case, the dominance of English may become an archaic anomaly.
As chairman of the Foundation for Endangered Languages, Ostler is well aware of the pressures that languages face, and how quickly they can wither away. His book puts that process into perspective - all languages evolve - but that does not stop him bemoaning the loss of diversity. It is predicted that, at the present rate of decay, more than half the world's languages will be extinct within a century. With them will go a sense of community, of a shared past and future. In the not too distant future, whole bodies of literature may come to seem as obscure as the cuneiform on those Sumerian clay patties.
Helena Drysdale is the author of Mother Tongues: travels through tribal Europe (Picador)