Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Nicholas Ostler

Nicholas Ostler is the author of The Last Lingua Franca: English Until the Return of Babel, Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin, and Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World. He is chairman of the Foundation for Endangered Languages, a charity that supports the efforts of small communities worldwide to know and use their languages more. 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 M.I.T., where he studied under Noam Chomsky. He lives in England, in Roman Bath, on the hill where Ambrosius Aurelianus defeated the Saxons for a generation.

Ostler's latest book is Passwords to Paradise: How Languages Have Re-invented World Religions.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. His reply:
Having just moved to a new home in the town of Hungerford in Berkshire, I have been exploring new bookshops close at hand.

At the closest, a tiny shop just five minutes from my front door, I came across a book which I am amazed to have missed when it came out. This is Valerie Hansen's The Silk Road. It is on a popular theme in world history nowadays, but Hansen's account is based on data, a sort of literary archaeology using documents dug up from one and a half millennia ago. And the cover page mentions four largely unknown languages - Sogdian, Khotanese, Kuchean and Uighur - confident that that these will draw general readers in, not scare them off!

The book is distinctive in insisting that most trade on the Silk Road was not of the glamorous long-distance variety, but just local exchanges. Rather than private trade by entrepreneurial camel-driving Sogdians, she suggests that the key to long-distance Silk Road traffic was Chinese-government consignments of silk, often in defence contracts to pay for horses. The book is also exceedingly well illustrated for an academic book. It gives the reader an inkling of what the (predominantly dry) scenery was like, and how all the different language speakers were variously attired. It also seems to be well-informed by current research, with personal thanks to noted current scholars, and not excluding some works in more impervious modern languages as Russian and Chinese.

Visiting nearby Marlborough, for regular "runs to the dump" (they have an excellent recycling centre), but also to patronize a gourmet street market (featuring Iranian dates) held every Saturday, I discovered the White Horse bookshop. Here the first book I saw - and purchased - was Peter H. Wilson's The Holy Roman Empire, a snip at 942 pages for £35. It is a pity that the publisher skimped on the contents page - since when reading at such length, it would help a lot to see the pattern made by section and sub-section headings, without having to reconstruct it for myself (as I had to). The book is also rich in detailed historical maps, and vast family trees.

A specialist in German history, Wilson gives an account of this fabled state from the inside, and from a sympathetic point of view. He examines the empire from various points of view, religious, political, social - but sadly the linguistic complexity of this compendious whole - mitigated early on by the spread of Latin with Christianity, and latterly (and only partially) by German - is never brought into the foreground. As a concept, the empire lasted from the reign of Charlemagne at the end of the 8th century to the invasions of Napoleon at the beginning of the 19th, and although ineffably "greater" in some sense than the multitude of statelets which it embraced, it never seemed to get credit for the largely unoppressive stability - what Wilson sees as locally-defined liberty - which it gave to central Europe over most of 1100 years. (So Hitler's intended "thousand year Reich", if delivered, would not have been unprecedented for the region — but the politics, and indeed ethics, would have had to be played better than the Nazi party ever managed.)

A bit like the Ottoman empire, which lasted a mere 600 years, it seems much more attractive and liberal than the more ruthless states which succeeded them in the modern era. Voltaire tactlessly pointed out that it was neither holy, nor Roman nor an empire, but this is perhaps an occupational hazard for organization with tripartite name: the Latin American journalist Daniel Waksman later did the same to that guild of Protestant missionary translators, the Summer Institute of Linguistics: "ni instituto, ni lingüístico, ni del verano".
Visit Nicholas Ostler's website.

Writers Read: Nicholas Ostler (July 2009).

--Marshal Zeringue