Sunday, July 19, 2009

Nicholas Ostler

Nicholas Ostler is the Chairman of the Foundation for Endangered Languages and author of Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World and Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin. A scholar with a working knowledge of twenty-six languages, Ostler has degrees from Oxford University in Greek, Latin, philosophy, and economics, and a Ph.D. in linguistics from MIT, where he studied under Noam Chomsky.

Earlier this month I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I'm reading Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker, a novel from 1980 written in deformed, but in the end curiously readable, colloquial English, which speculates on Iron Age life in Kent some centuries after a nuclear apocalypse, as humanity is slowly but steadily building up a new path to power and self-destruction.

I grew up in Kent, so I wondered if I should recognize the locales, but it is set exclusively in East Kent, and with a geography deformed by flood, so all I can recognize is Cambry (Canterbury), whose Ardship (archbishop) is one of the characters.

I got into it because I have long known vaguely of its linguistic experiment, and one of the by-ways I am exploring in my new book (on the future scope for English as a lingua-franca) is what might happen if world communications were to break down (as they clearly have in Riddley Walker's world). Hoban experiments with ambiguities that might arise as English words lose definition, and some have theological consequences. So when his culture hero Eusa, dabbling in nuclear research, finds ‘the littl shynin man the Addom’, it is also in some sense Adam, father of the human race.

The language was hard to cope with at first, or just rebarbative. (Language changes are always hard to accept for those they leave behind, I suppose.) But the explanations at made it all much easier to get into.
Read more about Ostler's Empires of the Word at the publisher's website.

Learn more about Nicholas Ostler at the Linguacubun website.

--Marshal Zeringue