Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World by Nicholas Ostler
This is a long and rich history of the spread of the major languages of the world, past and present. It tries to explain why some languages spread, and others did not, why some languages persisted, while others became extinct. Some languages that were very important at one time, such as Egyptian, have faded away, while others, such as Chinese, are still here.
Ostler describes how the ancient language Sumerian (written in cuneiform) was replaced about two thousand B.C. by the Semitic language Akkadian (spoken by the Assyrians and Babylonians, and also written in cuneiform). Akkadian itself was later replaced about six hundred years B.C. by another Semitic language, Aramaic, the lingua franca of the Middle East, before the Arab conquests.
- Phoenician (which gave us its alphabet)
Afroasiatic is a superfamily of Semitic that also includes:
- Chadic (Hausa)
- Cushitic (Oromo, Somali)
- Egyptian (Coptic)
- Balochi (Baluchi)
- Parthian (Pahlavi)
- Persian (Farsi)
- Scythian (Ossetian)
- Sogdian (Yaghnobi)
Ostler discusses the spread of the Aryan language Sanskrit into India, and its incorporation of the retroflex (tongue turned back) consonants from the indigenous Dravidian languages (Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam).
The national language of Indonesia, Bahasa Indonesia, is based on Malay, not Javanese. Malay had been used as a language of traders before the Dutch arrived. The Dutch used it as a medium for communicating with the Indonesians, rather than impose Dutch on the them. Javanese was not a good candidate for a national language, since it is much more complicated than Malay.
I was surprised to learn that some pre-Columbian languages are still widely spoken: Nahuatl in Mexico, the Incan Quechua in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, and Guarani in Paraguay. Guarani was preserved largely due to the efforts of Jesuit missionaries. The language is called Chiriguano in Bolivia and Tupinamba in Brazil.
Similarities Between Chinese and English
The author points out some interesting similarities between Chinese and English: (a) the lack of inflection, (b) the large amount of memorization required (English spelling, Chinese characters), and (c) the subject-verb-object word order.