Ostler, Nicholas

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Ostler, Nicholas


Education: Oxford, B.A., 1973, 1975; Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Ph.D., 1979.


Home and office—Bath, England. E-mail—[email protected]


Toyama University, Japan, lecturer in English and linguistics, 1979-81; Kanazawa University, Japan, part-time lecturer in English and linguistics, 1980-81; Meiji Gakuin University, Japan, part-time lecturer in English and linguistics, 1981; researcher of artificial intelligence and introduction of languages to computers, 1982—; Logica Ltd., IT consultant, 1982-91; Scion Ltd., IT consultant, 1982-91; Tocuhe Ross Management Consulting, IT consultant, 1982-91; consultant and coordinator of Speech and Language Technology (SALT) Programme, 1988-93; Linguacubun, England, chair, 1989-93, managing director, 1991—; Bilkent University, Ankara, Turkey, lecturer, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Advanced Study Institute on Language Engineering for Lesser Studied Languages, 2000; chair, Foundation for Endangered Languages.

Consultant, visiting fellow, University of Bath.


Lancaster University, fellow; School of Oriental African Studies (London University), fellow.


Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2005.

(Editor, with Maya Khemlani David and Caesar Dealwis) Working Together for Endangered Languages: Research Challenges and Social Impacts: Proceedings of the XIth FEL Conference, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 26-28 October 2007, Foundation for Endangered Languages (Bath, England), 2007.

Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin, Walker & Company (New York, NY), 2007.

Also of editor of publications, including Omigos, 1995-2006.


Linguist Nicholas Ostler is chair of the Foundation for Endangered Languages, a nonprofit organization that supports the use of endangered languages in the communities where they are found. He is also the author of Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World, which in part studies the factors that determine how a language survives. His explanations are accompanied by maps, drawings, and photographs that identify the origins and unique features of various languages. Ostler considers how factors including conquest, disease, religion, trade, and population growth change the development and spread of language. He also describes how these factors can cause some languages to survive and flourish and others to disappear. In modern day, only a few languages are spoken by half the world's population, especially Mandarin Chinese and English. A Kirkus Reviews contributor, who noted that general readers might find the study overwhelming, also wrote that the volume "rests on a foundation of scholarship and erudition so broad and deep that it will elicit gasps of admiration from professional linguists and assorted logophiles."

Empires of the Word is divided into three sections. The first and longest section covers the period from the ancient past, approximately 3,300 BC, to the Middle Ages. Ostler begins with the Semitic languages, from Akkadian to Aramaic and Phoenician to Arabic and Hebrew, and then studies Egyptian, Chinese, Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, and Celtic. The second section of the book discusses the last half millennium, the period during which European languages spread around the world. The final short section of Ostler's work provides an overview of the current state of language, with the author's predictions for the future, including his opinion that half of the world's languages face extinction within a century. New Statesman reviewer Helena Drysdale wrote that "Ostler is the first writer to attempt such a universal language history." Drysdale also noted that of the more than six thousand spoken languages, Ostler limits himself to those few that have been written and that have traveled geographically. Spectator contributor William Brett noted that Ostler's "aim is to find reasons for language successes and failures, but to find them in historical, social, political and economic factors, not in explicit comparative linguistics. This makes the book surprisingly accessible to the non-specialist, since it reads more like a historical narrative than a dense academic study."

Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin provides readers with a thorough, in-depth look at the history of Latin. As part of his introduction to the language, Ostler analyzes ancient languages overall, including Greek, Etruscan, and Oscan, and how they contributed to the development of Latin. He also examines how Latin became a prominent language, linking its broad coverage to the successes of the Roman Empire and to Roman acquisition of territory across vast tracks of land. Latin began as an everyday tongue, used by farmers and soldiers as much as by statesmen. Later it was used for scholarly purposes, particularly during the Middle Ages when education became far more widespread. However, as the title of the book suggests, Ostler offers an analysis of the life of the language, from its nascent days to its prime to its slow descent into obscurity and inaccessibility. At its most popular, Latin was the language spoken throughout the world, at least according to those who recorded history. The attitude of the day was if there was an area of the planet where Latin was unknown, that area itself was not worth knowing. While this concept sounds limiting, Latin was, in fact, spoken in far more corners of the world than is typically believed. Ostler devotes a chapter of his book to the unusual places where Latin spread, including Latin America, particularly during the time when explorers were intent on conquering new portions of the continent in the name of their European rulers. The language even spread among the locals, to the point where it was part of the school curriculum for Incan and Aztec children.

Ad Infinitum describes the breadth of use of Latin during different periods of history, particularly from the days of the Roman Empire through the Renaissance. In addition, Ostler includes various facts, such as the Latin origins of everyday words and terms that have become such a part of the vernacular that their linguistic origins are not particularly evident. This idea leads to a discussion of Latin in modern day, and whether or not the so-called dead language actually has a functioning role in society and in education. Anthony J. Elia, in a review for Library Journal, praised the book but noted that it "may overexpose non-Latinists to great quantities of Latin prose and linguistic explanations." A.E. Stallings, a contributor to American Scholar, commented that "like any good biographer, Ostler displays an encyclopedic familiarity with his subject, but not a blind, uncritical admiration." John Timpane, in a review for the Philadelphia Inquirer, remarked: "What a fascinating book, with beguiling sidelights—the many currents that change language, that change peoples and nations. Told with tenderness, packed with facts, quotations, jests and illustrations, this is a book that earns the great story it tells."



American Scholar, January 1, 2008, A.E. Stallings, "Latin's Eminent Career: Is the Language of Empire, the Church, Scholarship, and Europe Nearing Retirement?," review of Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin, p. 133.

Economist, March 12, 2005, review of Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World, p. 81.

Kirkus Reviews, May 1, 2005, review of Empires of the Word, p. 527.

Library Journal, July 1, 2005, Rebecca Bollen Manalac, review of Empires of the Word, p. 80; January 1, 2008, Anthony J. Elia, review of Ad Infinitum, p. 100.

National Review, July 18, 2005, John Derbyshire, review of Empires of the Word, p. 48.

New Statesman, February 28, 2005, Helena Drysdale, review of Empires of the Word, p. 50.

Observer (London, England), March 13, 2005, Jane Stevenson, review of Empires of the Word.

Philadelphia Inquirer, November 14, 2007, John Timpane, review of Ad Infinitum.

Publishers Weekly, May 16, 2005, review of Empires of the Word, p. 50.

Spectator, March 12, 2005, William Brett, review of Empires of the Word, p. 49.


California Literary Review Online,http://www.calitreview.com/ (July 11, 2005), Paul Comstock, author interview.

Foundation for Endangered Languages Web site,http://www.ogmios.org/ (October 24, 2005), author information.

Linguacubun Web site,http://www.chibcha.demon.co.uk/ (October 24, 2005), author profile.