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Thursday, December 02, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: The Last Lingua Franca by Nicholas Ostler


The Last Lingua Franca
English Until The Return of Babel
by Nicholas Ostler
p. 2010 Walker & Company

    You might consider Ostler a popularizer of the field of Socio-Linguistics.  His new book, published in the US on November 23rd, is an extended essay on the role of English as a Lingua Franca in the modern World.  Having recently read the author's earlier book Empires of the Word, I recognized both the theme and some of the details from the earlier book, which covers much of the same territory as the Last Lingua Franca, but in a more general manner.

  Specifically, in The Last Lingua Franca looks to historical examples of other Lingua Francas, and how they failed, and asks questions about whether or not English, the current Lingua Franca, might suffer the same fate. I very much place this book along the same continuum where you find pop intellectuals like Malcolm Gladwell or, shudder, Jared Diamond.  This group of writers familarizes itself with specific social science disciplines, distills the knowledge into modern magazine quality prose, and attempts to generate a hook that will interest readers who normally wouldn't give an eff about the field of "socio-linguistics."

     As such, I would be inclined to think that Ostler has the right angle, since the "decline" of English is a subject that obsesses both liberal members of the education establishment and political right wingers who sponsor "English Only" bills in the legislatures of the southern states.

     Most of Ostler's focus in this book is extended examples of different Lingua Francas, how they functioned, and how they collapsed.  The reader is treated to chapters on the role of Latin, Persian & Sanskrit in their respective societies, followed by his take on the rise of English, and what "the future holds" for English or any other would-be Lingua Franca.  Ostler's ultimate conclusion is spelled out in the title of the book itself, "The LAST Lingua Franca."  Ostler takes the position that the rise of Machine Translation and non-English speaking countries like Brazil, Russia, China & India make English's survival as a the language of the world far from secure. However he also acknowledges that it is difficult to imagine ANY language replacing English.

   Lingua Franca is a worth while read for a reader with a passing interest in linguistics and a college education, but it's hardly intellectual heavy lifting.

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