Empires of the Word & anti-Babel

By Razib Khan | August 16, 2010 4:29 am

Languages_of_EuropeTo the left you see a map of the distribution of languages and language families in Europe. Language is arguably the most salient cultural feature of our species, as well as one of the most obviously biologically embedded. The trait of language is a human universal, to the point where even those without hearing can create their own gestural languages de novo. But the specific nature of language as it is instantiated from region to region varies greatly. Language in the generality is a straightforward utility with which you communicate with your fellow man. But language also separates you from your fellow man.

European nationalism in the 19th and 20th centuries was in large part rooted in the idea that language defined the boundaries of a nation. During the Reformation era some German-speaking Roman Catholic priests declaimed the value of the bond of language against that of religion, praising those non-Germans who adhered to the Catholic cause against German speaking heretics (in the specific case the priest was defending Spanish tercios brought in by the Holy Roman Emperor to put down the rebellion of Protestant German princes). In the long centuries between the Reformation and the Enlightenment the idea of a Western Christian Commonwealth slowly melted in the face of the rise of vernacular, but even after the shattering of Western Christianity with the explosion of Reformations the accumulated capital of a unified Christian European elite persisted. Hungarian Protestant students at Oxford could make do with Latin even if they were totally innocent of English (see The Reformation). Newer lingua francas, French and later English, lack the deep unifying power of Latin in part because they are also living vernaculars. They may resemble Latin in some particulars of function, but eliding the differences removes far too much from the equation to be of any use. Linguistic diversity is a fact of our universe, but how it plays out matters a great deal, and has mattered a great deal, over the arc of history.

806-8This is the subject of Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World. Nicholas Ostler, the author, tackles an enormous subject here. He acknowledges the Herculean nature of his task in the introduction. And yet he does avoid some of the more intractable controversies within historical linguistics by constraining his subject matter to the period of history. That is, where we have some written records. This means that Ostler does not address the origins of the Indo-European language family, or the more recent expansion of the Bantus. Despite being separated by thousands of years these are both in the domain of pre-history, because we have no written records of proto-Bantu or proto-Indo-European. This does not mean that the book is not ambitious all the same. On the contrary, Empires of the Word takes on the “thicker” and messier tangle which is the association between language and fine-grained historical processes, social, cultural, economic and political. How history has shaped the nature and distribution of languages which we see extant in our world today is a labyrinth with many doors. Ostler doesn’t come close to opening the majority of those doors, but those he selects in Empires of the Word yield a rich number of surprises and insights, though he does not in the end seem to be able to generate a Grand Unified Theory of linguistic diversity and change from the welter of details.

top-20-languagesThere are two parallel threads throughout Ostler’s narrative: description and prediction. The latter is not prediction as a physicist would predict, rather, it is as a historical scientist might. Taking the data and producing models which can plausibly explain the phenomena we describe. Let’s take a look at the top 20 languages in the world. It seems that there are two primary ways that the speakers of a language can become numerous: rice & empire. Such a generalization is a bit glib, as many Mandarin speakers do not live by the “rice bowl,” but the big picture is that some languages gained adherents through “brute force,” pushing inexorably against the Malthusian possibilities of primary production and reproduction and assimilating smaller groups on the wave of advance of the speakers. The Asian languages on this list fall into that category. In contrast, you have the languages which spread with empire, exploration, and colonialism. English and Spanish are the exemplars of this class. Of the hundreds of millions of English and Spanish speakers a majority can not be accounted for simply by demographic expansion of the home countries. Rather, these languages colonized new lands, and acquired new speakers, rather rapidly over the past 500 years. Turkish is almost certainly in this category, though the transition from Greek, Armenian and Kurdish speech in Anatolia is less clearly understood because of thinner textual records of the process.

Of course the distinction between the two is somewhat artificial. The expansion of Mandarin, let alone the Chinese dialects, was almost certainly a synthesis of demographic expansion & migration, and linguistic assimilation of “barbarians.” Han Chinese are a genetically far less homogeneous than the Koreans or Japanese, in large part because the expansion of Han identity occurred over  a diverse group of populations which were resident within China proper 2,000 years ago. Similarly, it seems implausible that the Vietnamese ethnically cleansed all the Malay and Khmer speaking populations along the Annamese coast as they pushed toward the Mekong delta. The genetic data in fact hint to a large scale assimilation of Malay Chams by the Vietnamese. Inversely, the rise of English was partially accompanied by the demographic explosion of British peoples, while Spaniards contributed a great deal genetically to the mestizo populations of the New World. So it is not rice or empire, but rice and empire. Albeit with different weights on a case-by-case basis.

“Rice” really refers to social, cultural and economic forces which bubble up from below and swallow up the numerous islands of linguistic diversity. “Empire” connotes the political and military structure which allows for the trickle down from above of imperial values and mores. But the two are also intimately connected. The Chinese state under the Ching Dynasty saw a rapid rise in population, and that rise was enabled in large part due to political stability. That stability fostered long term projects which increased the land under cultivation as well as public works infrastructure which could distribute grain so as to dampen the effect of local shocks. The Greek historian Polybius attributed the resiliency and strength of the Roman state in to its assimilative capacity, turning barbarians into citizens. The military and political resiliency of the Roman Empire through the Crisis of the Third Century was probably conditioned on the expansion of Romanitas from the the Atlantic to the Black Sea (the military core of the revival drew from the Latin speaking regions south of the Danube in the Balkans).

Just as the Roman Catholic Church is sometimes referred to as “the ghost of the deceased Roman Empire,” so the distribution of modern languages are tells of political, social and economic events of the past. Social and economic forces almost certainly loom large in language family explosions which Ostler did not cover, that of the Bantus, the Polynesians and Indo-Europeans. In the first case it seems that the Bantu peoples brought with them a new mode of production to east and south Africa. This was then a rice expansion, along with some genetic assimilation. The case of the Polynesians is more difficult, but the existence of a similar group in Madagascar, attests to the power of long distance seafaring techniques in scattering obscure peoples. Without the existence of Malagasy, both their genetic and linguistic uniqueness, the written record would not clue us in to the existence of an organized community of long distance seafaring Southeast Asians across the Indian ocean basin. Finally, the Indo-European expansion is more mysterious because it is so much further back in time, but it is also the most significant as nearly half the world’s population speaks an Indo-European language. David Anthony in The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World makes the case that a shift toward nomadic pastoralism enabled by the horse is the critical catalyst for the sweep of this language group from the Atlantic to the Bay of Bengal.

Though the Indo-European case is likely an ancient one Empires of the Word actually begins its story earlier. Ostler’s in depth knowledge of ancient Near Eastern linguistic history is frankly mind-blowing, and is arguably the most insightful and novel spin on the topic I’ve ever encountered. The extent of detailed and subtle grasp of the facts is awe inspiring. I did not know, for example, that the Elamites of southwest Iran once had their own writing system, which they eventually abandoned for Akkadian cuneiform. Ostler recounts the life-after-death which Sumerian experienced for over 1,000 years because of the nature of cuneiform itself, which was fitted to the Sumerian language, a linguistic isolate with no known relatives. For the last thousand years of cuneiform it was written in Akkadian, the first great Semitic language in the world, later to be succeeded by Aramaic, Punic, Hebrew, and Arabic. Parallel to the waxing and waning of these antique Semitic languages was the ebb and flow of ancient Egyptian, with its own peculiar form of writing.

One aspect of these ancient societies and their languages is the almost cold-blooded torpidity with which change occurred. Sumerian persisted as a liturgical language in what became Babylonia down to the Roman and Parthian period, 3,000 years of written history. The social-political entity which we term ancient Egypt arguably spanned 2,500 years, up until the final Persian conquest. Egyptian culture in a sense that the Pharaohs would recognize persisted for another 1,000 years, until the closure of the Temple of Philae under the orders of the Christian Emperor Justinian in the 6th century. This cut the last link with the literature and religion of ancient Egypt. Consider that the time between our own era and that of Jesus Christ is equivalent to that between the rise of the Egyptian polity and its decline in the late Bronze Age. Though there are certainly similarities between Paul of Tarsus and a modern Western man, a great many disruptions have broken chains of cultural continuity.

There may be one exception to this, and that is another language which arose just as Egypt went into decline, and that is Chinese. Classical Chinese in its written form remained relatively static between the ancient period of the first dynasties, and the early 20th century. This continuity is telling insofar as Western scholars never had to “discover” the history of the Chinese, they had always remembered it. The continuity of language, culture values, and political and ethnic identity, dovetailed together so that despite the reality that the architecture of China is ephemeral, its stories are not. In contrast, much of the literary corpus of the ancient Western world comes down to us only because of three intense periods of copying: the Carolingian Renaissance, 10th century translations in the Byzantine Empire, and the Abbasid translation project in the 9th century. The history of the societies before Greece was perceived only obliquely through the Bible and the classical authors. Modern archaeology and linguistics eventually unlocked the secrets of both hieroglyphics and cuneiform, but the reality that we did not know of the significance of the Hittites in the ancient world attests to the poverty of knowledge which lack of cultural continuity imposes (the great disruption between the Indus civilization and pre-Maurya India means that the script of the former remains lost to us).

The distribution and continuity of dead languages also is a signpost for that other aspect of human culture which is very powerful and ubiquitous: religion. Today most of the Latin spoken is “Church Latin,” and that is because of the languages sacred role within the Roman Catholic Church. Though Hebrew is the spoken language of the secular state of Israel thanks to a modern revival, for nearly 2,500 years it was a language of religion only, as the Jews adopted the languages of the people amongst whom they lived, Aramaic, Greek, Persian, Arabic, Latin, German, etc. The ancient languages of the Near East, Coptic from ancient Egyptian, and Syriac from Aramaic, persist as liturgical languages. It seems that so long as the gods do not die in the minds of believers the tongues of the ancients persist down the ages. So next to the language of rice and empire, you have languages of the gods.

As I indicated above Empires of the Word is rather thin on robust generalizations. But one point which the author mentions repeatedly is that the rise and fall of languages of great expanse and utility is the norm, not the exception. In particular, Nicholas Ostler takes time out to emphasize that languages which spread via trade often do not have long term staying power. Portuguese, Aramaic, Punic and Sogdian would fall into this category (the later success of Portuguese was a matter of rice and empire in Brazil). It seems that mercantile communities are too ephemeral, that successive historical shocks inevitably result in their decline when there isn’t a peasant demographic reservoir or imperial power which imposes it by fiat. Even those languages which eventually spread beyond traders and gain cultural and political cachet may fall from grace. Greek is the best case of this. It was the dominant language of the Roman East, and spoken as far as modern Pakistan, and studied in Dark Age Ireland. By the early modern period it was a strange and foreign language in the West, and with the rise of Islam in the east it lost its cultural glamor, and even those Christians in Arab lands who were Melkite, Greek Orthodox who adhered to the theological position of Constantinople, became Arab in speech and identity (in greater Syria the Greek Orthodox have been instrumental in the formulation of Arab nationalism).

And yet to some extent one must be cautious about over-reading the recession of Greek in the face of Arabic after the rise of Islam. Ostler repeats the conventional wisdom that the predominant vernacular in the Roman East was never Greek, but rather Semitic dialects descended from Aramaic. This is manifest in the fact that the Oriental Orthodox churches do not use Greek in their liturgy, but forms of Syriac. Their root is in an alternative intellectual tradition from that of the Greek Church. The transition to Arabic was then predominantly from a closely related Semitic language, not from Greek. One of the theses to explain the spread of Arabic across North Africa, but not into Persia, is that Arabic found it easier to replace other members of the Afro-Asiatic language family. I can accept that people can intuitively perceive differences of language family without a deep knowledge of said languages. In Sons of the Conquerors: The Rise of the Turkic World it is recounted that an ambassador to the court of the Hapsburg Emperor in Vienna communicated to the Sultan that apparently the locals spoke a dialect of Persian! Persian and German are of course both Indo-European languages, and set next to Turkish they may sound vaguely similar.

This thesis is plausible to me, and I have long held to it in regards to Arabic’s replacement of Aramaic. I have been told by a friend who is familiar with both languages (in addition to Hebrew) that they are rather close, and if not intelligible close enough to make language acquisition much easier. But Ostler extends the argument much further, suggesting that genetic affinity also explains the replacement of Egyptian and Berber dialects in North Africa. These are Afro-Asiatic languages, but they are not Semitic. I assume linguists do perceive similarities of character which can connect these languages, but what features span the Afro-Asiatic languages which would make language acquisition easier even at this remove of relationship? The Afro-Asiatic theory for the spread of Arabic is somewhat convenient in that it does explain the data well: Arabic has spread widely only in regions of other Afro-Asiatic languages, the exception being in Spain. And in Spain the Mozarab dialect had a stabilized existence with the Romance language of the rural areas, which eventually came back in the form of Castilian, Portuguese, etc. What Nicholas Ostler seems to be proposing is that the world of language acquisition is not flat. This is clearly true for closely related languages, but I think the thesis needs to be explored for distantly related languages from the same family. Does a native speaker of Marathi have a leg up on a Hungarian when it comes to learning Gaelic? I remain skeptical of the affirmative in that case.

So Empires of the Word outlines some broad generalizations of how languages grow, which seem born out by the record of history, and offers some more speculative theories about the importance of the cultural terrain upon which languages can flow and spread. But the narrative also lingers long on the future of the current lingua franca of our age, English. Nicholas Ostler does nothing to dismiss the omnipresence of English at the commanding heights of international culture. He reports for example that in 1994 50% of international telephone calls were between English speakers. 45% were between English speakers and those who were not English speakers! That means only 5% of international calls in 1994 were cases where people neither spoke English as their native language. I suspect that the numbers have changed a bit since then, but if that study is correct then it points to the awesome international spread of the English language. But Nicholas Ostler does not think that it will last, and his rationale seems to be the record of history, where such universal languages always fall. His next book, The Last Lingua Franca: English Until the Return of Babel outlines his thesis in detail.

And yet contra Ostler I have to suggest that perhaps this time it’s different. I do not believe that English in a unified form will dominate all. Already there has been considerable dialect drift. But the past 200 years are qualitatively different from what has come before, and there is already a revolution in communication technology. It may be that in the future languages do not crystallize as a function of geography, but perhaps more as a function of class and occupation. It does seem historically that trade lingua francas have been ephemeral in impact, and English, the language of McWorld, is the language of capital. But the modern world is much more dependent on flows of capital and commerce than the pre-modern world, the Sogdians and Portuguese were primarily vectors for high value luxury goods. Pre-modern capitalism had the air of a parlor game between the high and mighty, and was quite often in bad odor among rentier elites themselves. It is with reason that I observed above that the pace of cultural change in the past was less than what it is today. Positive feedback loops may be much more powerful than they once were, so that a “Globish” derived from English may quickly sweep away all comers, before it diversifies again.

But really I should wait for Ostler’s new book. The arguments I make here may be addressed, or I may misunderstood what I gleaned from Empires of the Word. It is as I said a story with rich and vibrant detail, much of which I glossed over, or did not address. For that Ostler’s tale is worth the time it takes to complete it. But there is I must say a lack of theoretical punch and heft. Perhaps this is just a function of the subject domain, which has too much complexity to distill down to any model of elegance or tractability. But I suspect a more rigorous analytical framework could squeeze some juice out of the enormous pile of detail which Nicholas Ostler has at his disposal. Perhaps he should read Replicated Typo.

Image Credit: Wikimedia, Ethnologue

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy
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  • http://www.latif.blogspot.com Zachary Latif

    Great post (the map really speaks a 1000 words) – ordered Ostler’s book to skim over.

    Nice summary of varying ways of language diffusion particularly liked the anecdote of how German was perceived as a Persian dialect.

    Also the “similarity” these for Arabic & Aramaic is attractive though recent genetic data does point to very strong Bedouin influx allegedly.

  • pconroy

    Great review – sounds like a must read!

  • Sandgroper

    I was hugely entertained by his treatment of ancient Near Eastern language, but got hopelessly bogged down in Sanskrit.

    One of the strong messages I got from his book is that when it comes to language growth, diffusion and death, you really can’t establish any strong generalisations which enable you to make predictions. It is heavily contingent on the vagaries of history.

    One thing that has happened since 1994 which I think is influential is the commercial production of Chinese language versions of Windows and other operating systems, and Chinese word processing. Prior to that, Chinese-literate personal computer users really had no choice but to work in English.

    If you had asked me in 1995, I would have predicted the ultimate demise of written Chinese as an antiquated and unwieldy writing system unsuited to the modern world, and that reliance on computers would hasten its demise. Now I’m not so sure.

  • deadpost

    “Arabic has spread widely only in regions of other Afro-Asiatic languages, the exception being in Spain.”

    I suppose it’s not much, but also on Italy right (Maltese)?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    deadpost, that’s true!

  • John Emerson

    A language expansion that happened and then un-happened was Scythian (Northern Iranian). As part of the Indo-Iranian phase of the Indo-European expansion, Scythian languages dominated most of the steppe where Mongol, Turkish languages, and Slavic languages are now spoken. But as time went on Scythian dwindled, until now there are fewer than a million (per Wiki, not a good article).

    My understanding is that the process went this way.

    1. Expansion to fill steppe.
    2. Gravitation to the borders of civilization (urban, literate) to take advantage of wealth, first by raiding but later also by mercenary service and in some cases the conquest and rule of civilized areas.
    3. Thinning of population in the homeland areas (Mongolia, etc.) so that other peoples (Turks) filter in and become dominant.
    4. Some Scythians are absorbed by the Greeks, Romans, Persians, etc. as slaves, soldiers, etc. Some die in unsuccessful wars. Some are absorbed or killed by the Turks coming from the East or the Goths from the North. Essentially they’re trapped between foreign and often hostile peoples. By the time of the Huns (~400 AD) they’re either in the Roman forces or subordinated to the Huns. Finally survivors find a refuge in the Caucasus.
    5. Same process — Turks vacate Mongolia and Mongols move in. But this time things work out differently.

    A mystery to me is the adoption of the Hungarian and Turkish languages in those countries, when it’s neither the local commoner language nor a culture language. Turkish also gained against the Persian culture language in C. Asia, though there’s been bilingualism there for over a thousand years.

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  • onur

    A mystery to me is the adoption of the Hungarian and Turkish languages in those countries, when it’s neither the local commoner language nor a culture language.

    In the case of Turkish, if you look at where the Turkish language spread after the Seljuk expansion, you’ll see that it was almost always in places where Christians dominated both by population and rule prior to the arrival of Turks, and with them, Islam: Anatolia (Asia Minor), Greater Armenia, later also Cilicia, the Balkans, the Caucasus and Cyprus. The only major exception to this rule is Azerbaijan (including Iranian Azerbaijan), where Iranic speaking Muslim populations and dynasties dominated prior to the arrival of Turks, but from the historical record it seems that the Turkish language spread there rather late (at least to a large extent) and as a result of the increasing power of the Turkish dynasties in the region both politically and culturally. So except Azerbaijan, the Turkish language almost always spread in parallel with Islam in West Asia and South Eastern Europe, thus its spread must have a rather strong relationship with Islamification in those regions.

    In the case of Hungarian, I think Hungarians brought with them a strong central authority to a previously disunited territory and this is, I think, what led to the spread of the Hungarian language there.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    fascinating point about turkish. the shift toward turkish in central asia itself was in large part in the wake of the mongol invasions from what i can gather. the “mongol” armies in this area being ethnically turkish in any case.

  • onur

    As to the spread of Turkish in Central Asia and the Pontic-Caspian steppe, I think it is more complicated than the above cases as there were many migrations from different directions in different times and stages and different motives in the spread of the Turkish language and often different trajectories in different regions. So it should certainly be studied on a case by case basis.

  • onur

    BTW, in my above posts by “Turkish language” I mean Turkic languages.

  • John Emerson

    It sounds as though Turkish was, in effect, a culture language even though the culture languages of Islam were Persian and Arabic.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    interesting observation. from what i have read persian was to the early ottomans what french was in 18th century prussia, the language of culture.

  • http://www.esperanto.net Brian Barker

    Thanks for such an interesting article.

    As far as the World language problem is concerned the problem is also complicated. President Barack Obama wants everyone to learn a foreign language,as well, but which one should it be? The British learn French, the Australians study Japanese, and the Americans prefer Spanish.

    Yet this leaves Mandarin Chinese and Hindi out of the equation.

    I think we should move forward and teach a common, easily learnt language, in all nations worldwide. So why not make Esperanto compulsory, worldwide :)

    Detail can be seen at http://www.lernu.net . Alternatively see http://eurotalk.com/en/store/learn/esperanto

  • onur

    Late 13th to early 14th centuries saw the beginning of an intensive activity of translation of Persian and Arabic works to Turkish in Anatolia, also new works increasingly began to be composed in Turkish beginning from the same period. So eventually Turkish became a language of culture in addition to Persian and Arabic first in Anatolia and environs in the 14th century, then with the Ottoman conquests of the Balkans, in the Balkans, and, with the rise of Turkish dynasties based in Azerbaijan (including Iranian Azerbaijan) and environs, in Azerbaijan and environs.

    Beginning from the 14th century, Turkish was the lingua franca in Anatolia in addition being the state language of most of the Anatolian Turkish emirates (beyliks), even most of those people still remaining Christian and Jew switched to Turkish in most of Anatolia during those times.

  • Sandgroper

    Er, Brian, the Australians used to study Japanese. They don’t much any more. The teaching of Asian languages in Australian schools has declined precipitously over the past 20 years.

  • benj

    There is at least a mistake concerning Hebrew. It is now established that Hebrew was the daily language of Jews in Judea at least until the end of the second century and was not just a “religious language”. There is also wide evidence that it was used between Jews of different background as a lingua franca for many centuries.

    But the post is fascinating and I will read this book.

  • onur

    Beginning from the 14th century, Turkish was the lingua franca in Anatolia

    Later, Turkish became the lingua franca in also Azerbaijan, in parts of the Balkans and the Caucasus and finally in Cyprus after its conquest by the Ottomans.

    There was a shift towards Turkish (spoken and written) even among the Persian elites in Anatolia.

    Turkish was surely a prestige language in the northeastern Mediterranean world beginning from the 14th century. Written records also testify this.

  • onur

    There was a shift towards Turkish (spoken and written) even among the Persian elites in Anatolia.

    beginning from the late 13th to early 14th centuries

  • toto

    and Syriac from Aramaic, persist as liturgical languages.

    Well, on the free TV package that comes with my ADSL contract, I get TWO channels in Syriac. Suroyo TV and Ishtar TV. They mostly show folksy popular music, and use the Arabic script for all texts. Aramaic not dead!

    And yet I have to pay to get anything in Hindi/Urdu.

    The main reason to think that English will dominate for the foreseeable future is that there simply isn’t any viable competitor. The closest thing would be Spanish, but from the perspective of the outer world it’s just another Euro language, so why learn that one rather than English? Admidttedly it’s a bit easier (especially wrt pronunciation and grammar), but not enough to offset the dominant player advantage, which is paramount when choosing a communication language to learn. That, and English is the language of the US, which has the tech, the guns, and the money.

    So why not make Esperanto compulsory, worldwide

    1- It’s European.
    2- It’s – how do you say? – butt-ugly. So are all artificial languages I know of.

    It is now established that Hebrew was the daily language of Jews

    Cool. But then why did one very famous Roman-era Jew choose to curse in Aramaic?

  • Bolek

    A language expansion that happened and then un-happened was Scythian (Northern Iranian). As part of the Indo-Iranian phase of the Indo-European expansion, Scythian languages dominated most of the steppe where Mongol, Turkish languages, and Slavic languages are now spoken. But as time went on Scythian dwindled, until now there are fewer than a million (per Wiki, not a good article).

    There is no proof that described by Herodotus historical Scythians living north of Black Sea were speaking Iranian language. Wiki assumes that Ossetian (which is a Northern Iranian dialect) is Scythian, but genetics tells us that’s wrong. Scythian language is unknown as no written records had been left and one can only speculate.
    I’ve come across interesting post about it:

    https://www.forumbiodiversity.com/showpost.php?p=167673&postcount=126

    What do you think?

  • trajan23

    A fascinating review, Razib. Some comments:

    1.Although it’s been a while since I read the book, I seem to recall that Ostler was rather downbeat on the longterm health of Mandarin, implying that it, like Egyptian, would slowly fade away (Ostler was quite keen on establishing parallels between China and ancient Egypt). What did you think of this notion in the book?

    2. England vs. America (and the rest of the Anglophone world): Ostler was quite intent on establishing England as the source of the spread of English. America’s role, such as it is, is to maintain and reinforce a linguistic order that England created.

    3. Linguistic affinity and language acquisition: To me, this was the most intriguing part of the book, and I regretted the fact that Ostler spent so little time on the subject. His argument for the role of similarity in the replacement of Aramaic by Arabic seems quite sound, but he also made similar claims regarding the Continental Celtic languages and Latin, a somewhat more fraught topic. Razib, did you have any thoughts on the Latin-Celtic front?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #3, how would i know? i’ve read from others that latin-celtic is a clade within indo-european. this stands to reason geographically as the two seem to be the two western branches. but from what i know latin-celtic is far closer than egyptian/berder-semitic. though i’m curious as to what a historical linguist would say.

  • Latifundiário

    As always we have won the biggest prize, Portuguese in Brazil presents the highest ratio of expansion/speakers compared to the original motherland: 20×1, 10 millions in Portugal and 200 millions in Brazil ! Good for a small Atlantic language compared with the fate of languages from Wales-Scotland-IrelandxEnglish or Basque-Catalan-GalicianxCastilian !

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #25, the better reference is 1500. port pop = 1.5 mill. british isles = 4 mill.

    re: mandarin and its future. in the long run we’re dead, and by the time mandarin goes into ‘decline’ i think the human race will be on to better things, or, we’ll have fallen back into a malthusian trap. moot point :-)

  • benj

    “But then why did one very famous Roman-era Jew choose to curse in Aramaic?”

    Well, as the Gospels say themselves, Jesus was speaking in Hebrew (in the original greek text and translated to “Aramaic” in English for ideological reasons). But anyway, Jews also knew Aramaic and used it, particularly in Galilee from where Jesus came.
    And, seriously, as we know nothing of this guy, not even sure he did exist, and the Gospel having been written decades after him if he did and not in Judea, well this is no proof.
    A much better proof is of course the Mishna, the oral tradition of the Jews encompassing every aspect of life and not just religion, written down in 200 – it is entirely in Hebrew while the Guemara, the commentary on the Mishna, also an oral tradition but from latter centuries is in a mixed Hebro-Aramaic dialect – because at that time the Jews stopped speaking Hebrew in everyday life.

  • Bill Chapman

    Someone has alrerady expressed my view that there’s a case for making wider use of Esperanto. This delightful planned language has a lot to offer. It is relatively easy to learn and use.

    Go to http://www.lernu.net

  • trajan23

    benj:

    “It is now established that Hebrew was the daily language of Jews in Judea at least until the end of the second century”: This comment needs to be qualified. In the North (Galilee, etc) there is solid evidence that Aramaic was firmly established as the dominant spoken language amongst Jews. Hebrew persisted longer as a spoken vernacular in the South, but Aramaic was a strong presence, even in Jerusalem, throughout the Second Temple period.Bear in mind that Aramaic did not magically replace Hebrew as a spoken language once the date changed from 199 to 200; it was a gradual process of linguistic erosion.

    “not even sure he [Jesus] did exist..” : No reputable scholar today seriously doubts the existence of Jesus.

  • John Emerson

    Bolek: A number of Scythian words have been preserved, and I think that that’s what people use to decide. Related peoples in E Eurasia (e.g. Sogdians) have Iranian languages distinct from Persian.

    The site you linked to seems very tendentious and nationalistic, always a risk in this area of study. To my knowledge no one has ever questioned that the Ossete language is from a different Iranian branch than Persian. The idea that the Scythians were mostly Slavs and that the Ossetes are Persians is a revolutionary one, and one that has to be backed up by a very solid and thorough argument. I’m not an expert in this area but there wasn’t anything at the link to cause me to adopt the standard opinion on the subject.

  • John Emerson

    “Cause me to reject”

  • onur

    there wasn’t anything at the link to cause me to reject the standard opinion on the subject

    Rejection would be extreme, what about questioning?

  • ben

    @ trajan23

    Well that’s exactly what I wrote – Galilee did speak Aramaic much more and Jews even in the South knew it.
    Regarding Jesus, I mostly doubt that he lived when the Gospels say he did and am more convinced by the thesis that he lived one century before himself – a thesis hold for centuries by a strong Jewish tradition and by some scholars (with no knowledge of said Jewish tradition which makes it more convincing). But this is just fun speculation, I don’t really care.

  • onur

    Galilee did speak Aramaic much more and Jews even in the South knew it.

    That is probably have to do with the late Judaization of Galilee. Galilee wasn’t a part of the Iron Age kingdom of Judah, nor a part of the Achaemenid province Yehud, it was only conquered by the Jews during the Hasmonean times and was probably Judaized (almost certainly forcibly) by the Hasmoneans (as also happened to Idumaea and other newly conquered Hasmonean regions). This explains the Aramaic tongue of the Galilean Jews (who were basically new converts), as Aramaic had already been the dominant language in most of the Levant (including Galilee) several centuries earlier, the Jews of Judah (who were the original Jews and had been Jews probably since the late Iron Age) had probably resisted to switching to Aramaic in a wide scale due to their exclusive Yahwist monotheism and the sacred role of Hebrew in Judaism and their scriptures. Aramaic may only have been dominant among the Judean Jews after the destructions of the Romans in Judaea (= Judah) during the 1st-2nd centuries CE.

  • John Emerson

    Onur, it just wasn’t good enough. First of all, it’s a nationalist site and full of bald assertions. The guy seems to have no concept of linguistics. and just wings it. He seems unaware of the existence of Sogdian, which is a well-attested Iranian language distinct from Persian, and also seems unaware of the literature on the languages of the Scythians, the Alans, and the Ossetes. As it happens, I’m not familiar with these areas either, but for me to take his doubts seriously he has to address what’s already be done.

    “Remember that Slavic languages are older, more archaic, conservative and closer to PIE than Iranian. You can’t derive Slavic from Iranian. There is no Iranian substratum in Slavic languages” is just a nonsense argument. It’s more or less true but proves nothing. No one ever said that the Slavic languages were derived from the Iranian languages, or if anyone ever did, no one takes them seriously any more.

    I can’t judge his genetic arguments. He asserts that archeology supports him but doesn’t provide details.

    On the question of Slavic subjects of the Scythians, I think that that’s not controversial. But he seems to be saying that there were no Iranian Scythians at all.

    For me to take that argument seriously the language questions would have to be better addressed and the other arguments better developed. The genetic arguments are new to me and they seem to be the main thing he brings to the argument. Peoples and “races” have traditionally been linguistically defined, but now with DNA testing mismatches between language and descent can be found. Nomadic peoples are more fluid in every way than sedentary peoples, with migration, bilingualism and interbreeding confusing the issues, so you pretty much never get the neat matches between genetics, language/dialect, and geographical location that 19th c. anthropologists used to define nations.

  • onur

    John, as far as I know, no serious historian, linguist or archaeologist today doubts that the Scythians/Sarmatians/Sakas/Alans spoke Eastern Iranian languages that are very close to the Ossetic and Sogdian languages based primarily on the Scythian/Sarmatian/Saka/Alan names on inscriptions and other writing media in known languages (especially in Greek), and that seems enough for me to believe the mainstream view. So the case seems closed for me.

  • Bolek

    Rejection would be extreme, what about questioning?

    Onur, I agree with that statement. Wikipedia does indeed say that Scythians were “of Iranian stock”, but on what grounds?

    There is no surviving linguistic material for Scythian language(s), other than the handful of words reported by Herodotus, which are not similar to any language, and some reported names of Scythian kings, the vast majority of which are not similar to any Persian names and do not contain any obvious Persian word components.
    If we look for example at ‘Papaios’ or ‘Tabiti’ then we have to remember that ‘papa’ is ‘dad’ in Russian and ‘tiepliti’ is ‘to worm’. Similarly other words. Slavic and Indo-Iranian languages are very similar and many words have the same root.

    There are no known texts written in any Scythian language There are a few inscriptions which ‘might’ be in a Scythian language, such as the Issyk Kul inscription, but they have not been deciphered by any mainstream scholar. No one knows what language they are written in.
    There are also some 50 non-Greek words that appear in Greek inscriptions in Ukraine and Russia, mostly from Olbia, which ‘might’ be borrowed words from Scythian languages, or ‘might’ be Scythian names, but there is no way to know what they are, and certainly no way to decipher them.
    Pontic Olbia or was a colony founded by the Milesians and naturally many citizens there could’ve had Asiatic roots.

    No linguist has identified any Scythian language in any peer-reviewed journal. That won’t happen until somebody finds some linguistic material that would serve as a basis for identification. The sources cited in Wikipedia are either not peer-reviewed, or are not linguists. Many mainstream Indo-Europeanists believe Scythians were Iranian on the basis of the kurgan hypothesis and assumption that Ossetians are direct descendants of Scythians, but none have put forward any direct evidence that Scythians were Iranian.
    Onur, you believe the mainstream view. I know what the mainstream view is but many mainstream views were proven wrong in the past. What I am looking for is evidence. Could you direct me to a serious peer-reviewed publication by some recognized authority in which it is demonstrated that Scythians living north of Black Sea were Iranians.

    I’m really interested in the subject because after some recent publications and discoveries in genetics and anthropology I have serious doubts about mainstream view which doesn’t take this into account.

    There is no doubt that Scythians didn’t come from Iran. Christine Keyser at al. 2009 paper demonstrates that that Middle Bronze Age Andronovo, Late Bronze Age Karasuk and Iron Age Tagar Scythians were light pigmented, blue eyed Europeans. Their aDNA analysis shows that autosomal and Y-STR profiles match modern Slavic population of Central Europe. There are no direct matches in Iran or Ossetia. This proves that genetically Slavic population is closer to ancient Scythians than Iranian or Osettian.
    This agrees with Herodotus who describes Scythians as European light pigmented, blue eyed people.

    Genetic studies by Nasidze at al. 2004 demonstrated also that Ossetians arrived from Iran and are mixed with Caucasian population. And that they lack hg. R1a1a which is considered a Scythian and Indo-European marker. I don’t see how Ossetians can be linked with historical Scythians now.

    I’m not an expert in Iranian languages but Ossetian and Soghdian languages are considered to be close to Avestan, which is close to Old Persian. Old Persian was the common language of Achaemenid Empire. So the question put in the linked post ( ie. why Herodotus didn’t mention that Persians and Scythians were speaking similar languages) is valid in my opionion.

    Finally the question of what happened with the Scythians, not only those on the steppe but more important with Scythians living in the forest zone north of the steppe.
    Isn’t it strange that sudden disappearance of all Scythians corresponds to sudden occurrence of Slavs. I’ve read recently that the rate of population increase up to XVII century in that region of the world could hardly exceed 2% per 100 years or 20% per 800 years. So the sudden population explosion seems very unlikely.

    In my opinion many mainstream views on the subject were established in XIX century and do not fit modern developments.
    Colin Renfrew in Current Biology 20, R162–R165, February 23, 2010 hopes that soon [i]“coherent synthesis of the data from genetics, archaeology and linguistics is likely to emerge”[/i] and all those historical issues will be solved.

    What do you think Onur, are the ‘mainstream views’ compatible with modern genetics? Should we investigate the Scythian puzzle?

  • onur

    Bolek, let me begin my words with a disambiguation. When I said “so the case seems closed for me” I actually meant to say “so the case seems closed to me”. So that closedness isn’t my own opinion of the issue, but the mainstream academic opinion I perceive. If you don’t think that the case is closed for the academic world, then please show me references from reputable academics that directly or indirectly indicate that the issue is still disputed in the academic world. Until then, I think there is no point in discussing this issue, as I am an amateur in history and genetics and not even that in archaeology, and I guess you aren’t much different from me on this matter.

  • dieter

    Positive feedback loops may be much more powerful than they once were, so that a “Globish” derived from English may quickly sweep away all comers, before it diversifies again.

    How so? In the past most people didn’t receive instruction in their own language, languages weren’t standardized, institutions of higher learning or skills training, newspapers and so own weren’t available in all mother tongues or were actively suppressed by elites to stiffle national liberation. Languages were therefore more open to change and rather unprotected against decline.

    Local dialects disappear or increasingy approximate the national language for this reason as well. The decline of dialects points to the strength of dominant national languages rather than to their weakness and potential displacement by foreign lingua francas.

    The professions und upper classes have no collective interest of a weakning of their national language. The adoption of a lingua franca would subject them to more competition. The phenomenon of outsourcing to India is much more limited in continental Europe for this reason.

    Low skill migrants, guest workers, service workers in the tourism industry on the other hand have more of an incentive learn a new language to interact with others (usually to a very limited and practical degree of proficiency). But the language at hand is dominated by regional factors.

    I think you are grasping at straws with your Globish hypothesis. Adoption of a new language is difficult and few people bother to do so, unless they see an immediate and compelling reason to do so.

    Nicholas Ostler claims that language translation software will diminish the need to learn a lingua franca. Well that is a hard AI problem anyway.

    But I would look at crowdsourcing like on Wikipedia. Name an obscure politician or thinker, a small town or a relatively recent political controversy or new concept from modern finance and there will be numerous, lengthy articles on Wikipedia about the subject in all kinds of languages.

    Crowdsourcing reduces the need to do primary research in foreign language material. Somebody has already done that for you. The more the need to acquire a foreign language is reduced, the less people will bother to do it.

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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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