Talks about the history of the widespread (and some less widespread) languages of the world, the book takes its time to get going and the opening chapters on Chinese, Sanskrit, Aramaic and a few other ancient or more obscure languages are tough to get through, although this might be because of my own relative lack of background information for those areas and historical periods.
Still, these first chapters are definitely too abstract, lacking in practical examples in relation to the language shifts which occurred in these faraway times, while at the same time, Ostler seems to want to discuss all the worlds history in less than 600 pages, creating a feeling for the reader like going through several roller coasters at the same time.
Also, although the author picks interesting subject after intersting subject, his focus on language as something of an international actor on the world stage occasionally feels contrived, one example being his comparison of Egyptian and Chinese and the common underlying reason for their prolonged and unchanged existence.
Then, his extensive use of technical linguistic use, often without concrete examples make some of his remarks and line of reasoning hard to follow.
When Ostler starts to talk about Greek, and other European languages and their historical conquests of the 'old' and 'new' worlds, his stories become much easier to follow, although I'm sure that's also because my personal knowledge of this history and geography is much more detailed.
The book has a truckload of interesting bits and pieces. Here are a few:
+ Hausa, spoken in West Africa, is a Semitic language, like Arabic or Hebrew.
+ The name 'Persian' ultimately derives from the word 'parsua', 'borderlands' in Akkadian, the common language in pre-Iranian Mesopotamia.
+ Phoenicians, who controlled the Mediteranean trade before the Greeks, called themselves Canaanites.
+ Punic, the language of Carthage, where Hannibal came from when invading Italy on elephants, is just another name for the Phoenician language.
+ The Persians, overtaking the Elamites some 2700 years ago in what is now Iran, laying the basis for the subsequent Persian empire, were trained to ride a horse, to shoot a straight arrow and to tell the truth. This has a clear Scythian ring to it and compares to the central Asians of later eras.
+ The Scythian language survives today in the form of Oscetic, one of the languages in use in the Caucasus.
+ The name for the language 'Swahili' derives from the Arabic word for 'coasts', as the language, with strong Arabic influences, was originally indigenously only spoken on the east African seaboard.
+ 'Himalaya' comes from the Sanskrit for 'snow abode'.
+ Strikingly, Greek incorporated several Sanskrit words due to its coming into contact with Indian trade after Alexander's conquest. Two interesting additions being 'suger', 'sakharon' in Greek, from 'sarkara', 'grit' in Sanskrit and 'pepper', 'peperi' in Greek, from 'pippali', 'berry' in Sanskrit.
+ Through trade, Sanskrit and Indian religions fanned out over south east Asia where the modified indigenous cultures became cultural tributes to the 'mother' culture of India.
+ Urdu, the language of Pakistan, and extremely close to Hindi, comes from 'zaban-e-urdu-e-mualla', 'language of the camp exalted', a Persian term where the first and third words are of Arabic origin and the middle of Turkic.
+ Madagascar was colonized from Borneo.
+ Popular thought points to the Greeks naming Italy: 'Italia', the land of the '(w)italoi', 'yearling cattle'. '(w)italoi', in a changed shape and form, is still part of the English language as 'veal'.
+ Greek is still being spoken in two small enclaves in southern Italy; Bovesia in Calabria and Calimera and Martano in Puglia.
+ A map of Alexander's conguered lands features no less than 14 cities name 'Alexandria' or derivatives thereof.
+ Cajuns, in the southern US, were originally inhabitants of the islands of Nova Scotia and were moved to the southern US after England exchanged the area for trading concessions in India.
+ The often mentioned urban legend that German (or Dutch) at one point was almost declared the official language of the USA stems from a 1794 request by German speaking farmers in Augusta country, Virginia, for a German translation of laws from the US House of Representatives. The request was declined, when the Speaker of the House at the time happened to be a German himself.
One thing that was lacking was any significant talk on the influence of the Mongol language on the conquered lands. Then again, there was practically none, so too much can't be said anyway.