Language, that strangest and most beautiful of things

Language, that beautiful and very strange thing which seperates us from animals, turning sounds into words to communicate what we are, what we want. To understand languages and where they are from is to understand who we are and what we are.

Here are two excellent resources about this most fascinating of subjects, the first a wonderful book, the second an amazing BBC TV series:

Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World + Fry’s Planet Word

Image for Fry's Planet Word

Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World

by Nicholas Ostler


An unusual and authoritative ‘natural history of languages’ that narrates the ways in which one language has superseded or outlasted another at different times in history.

The story of the world in the last five thousand years is above all the story of its languages. Some shared language is what binds any community together, and makes possible both the living of a common history and the telling of it.

Yet the history of the world’s great languages has rarely been examined. ‘Empires of the Word’ is the first to bring together the tales in all their glorious variety: the amazing innovations — in education, culture and diplomacy — devised by speakers in the Middle East; the uncanny resilience of Chinese throughout twenty centuries of invasions; the progress of Sanskrit from north India to Java and Japan; the struggle that gave birth to the languages of modern Europe; and the global spread of English.

Besides these epic achievements, language failures are equally fascinating: why did Germany get left behind? Why did Egyptian, which had survived foreign takeovers for three millennia, succumb to Mohammed’s Arabic? Why is Dutch unknown in modern Indonesia, given that the Netherlands had ruled the East Indies for as long as the British ruled India?

As this book engagingly reveals, the language history of the world shows eloquently the real characters of peoples; it also shows that the language of the future will, like the languages of the past, be full of surprises.

Fry’s Planet Word

The title card for Fry's Planet Word. A series of tree branches have the names of languages such as "Dutch", "English", and "Germanic" are seen along background branches and "Fry's Planet Word" is in the foreground.

Fry’s Planet Word is a documentary series about language. Written and presented by Stephen Fry, the first of five hour-long episodes was broadcast on 25 September 2011 on BBC HD. More info via wikipedia

1 – Babel

Focusing on the origins of language with topics covered including:

2 – Identity

Focusing on how one identifies through language

3 – Uses and Abuses

The evolution of slang and profanity

4 – Spreading the Word

The history of written language, from the earliest writing to blogging and tweeting

5 – The Power and the Glory

The influence of storytelling and literature on language


13 Responses to Language, that strangest and most beautiful of things

  1. fuspey says:

    i didnt know nick ostler spoke irish, but here he is speaking out about endangered languages

  2. fuspey says:

    In Ostlers book he refers to a connection between gaelic and north african pre muslim language of berber. Some time back I had an African linguist on my tour who told me that both language still have the same words for 2 basic things in life:

    women – mná
    bread – arán


    Is the Irish Language Spoken in Africa?

    Taken from the Ulster Journal of Archaeology, Volume 7, 1859

    FROM time to time statements have appeared in different quarters, asserting distinctly the existence of the Irish language, at the present day, among certain tribes in the North of Africa. Though these statements bore marks of great improbability, I considered the subject sufficiently curious to induce me to preserve a note of them, with the view of endeavouring at some time to ascertain whether they had any true foundation. The first that attracted my attention was a short notice published in the Dublin Penny Journal in 1834 (vol ii, p. 248), which was as follows:—

    “About the close of the last century, a gentleman who was superintending the digging out of potatoes in the County of Antrim, was surprised to see some sailors, who had entered the field, in conversation with his labourers, who only spoke Irish. He went to them, and learned that the sailors were from Tunis, and that the vessel to which they belonged had put into port from stress of weather. The sailors and country-people understood each other; the former speaking the language used at Tunis, and the latter speaking Irish. This anecdote was related by a person of credit, and must interest the Irish scholar.”

    also –

  3. fuspey says:

    a bit more about the irish – berber connection

    Atlantean is a quartet of documentary films and accompanying book (The Atlantean Irish, Lilliput, 2005) by Irish film maker Bob Quinn. [1] The films and book dismissed as myth the popular belief in “Celtic” origins of the inhabitants of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Asturias, Brittany and Galicia and proposed instead that they are part of a common ‘Atlantean’ culture that includes the western seaboard of Europe and North Africa.

    ATLANTEAN Episode 01 – Bob Quinn

    If you are interested in the deeper layers of Irish culture and historical influences then this is possibly the most important documentary ever made on the subject. The awarding winning series “Atlantean” began filming in 1981. This is episode one of the quartet by Bob Quinn.

    – Irish Times; The tracing of the shrew: why Celtic DNA leads back to Africa

    If all this has a slightly familiar ring, it is because a gifted and persistent Irish amateur teased out the possibilities (even, I would say, the clear certainties) of north African connections with Connemara in four brilliantly stimulating films shown on RTÉ in the 1980s and his subsequent book, The Atlantean Irish (Lilliput, 2005).

    Bob Quinn’s Atlantean project was sparked by the unmissably Arab dynamic in the cadences of Connemara’s sean-nós singing. The peninsula’s intimate connection with the sea and the odd identity of the púcán’s lateen sail with that of the Arab dhow launched him on a four-year exploration, reading, researching and filming as he went.

    The Berber and Tuareg heritage now showing up in Scottish genes is just another support for the abundant “Celtic” associations he found and filmed in north Africa, in song and singers, archaeological monuments, manuscript decoration and jewellery design. Such treasures as the Ardagh Chalice and Book of Durrow show intricate affinity with Islamic decorative motifs and crafts, and Coptic Christianity from Egypt left material traces well ahead of St Patrick.

  4. fuspey says:

    Minority languages sing out at Liet 2012

    Cultures often described as ‘dying’ are offered a new chance at life by a ‘Eurovision antidote’ song contest.

    via AL JAZEERA –

  5. fuspey says:

    my native language, which only about 5% of us irish now use as a first language….

    but hopefully that will change.

    Scéal na Gaeilge (THE STORY OF THE IRISH LANGUAGE – via TG4, the irish language channel in ireland)

  6. fuspey says:

    The Adventure of English, MELVIN BRAGG

    Ep 1 – Birth of A Language –

    Melvyn Bragg travels throughout Britain to explore the roots of the English language which evolved from a German dialect that arrived in the country in the fifth century and evolved into a language that is understood by more people around the world and explores its history that helped it to become what it is today. ©ITV


  7. fuspey says:

    The Catalan language is still in danger, despite its resurgence

    Other languages have a state to defend them and their speakers don’t have to contend with a state that acts against their tongue

  8. fuspey says:

    QI – discussion about the perception of accents

  9. fuspey says:

    Tommy Tiernan talking about the Cork accent, how there is such difference in sound for such a small island

    one theory is that the cork accent is responsible for the jamaican accent, due to thousands of slaves being sent out there hundreds of years back..

  10. fuspey says:

  11. fuspey says:

    Nearest to old english…

    Eddie goes to Friesland to try and speak old english. Apparently the english language as we know it originated from holland in its earliest form 1000 years ago (old english). Eddie proves it by going to holland to buy a cow…

  12. fuspey says:

    Matthew is a polyglot who works with us at Babbel and uses his extraordinary knowledge of language to develop courses for

  13. fuspey says:

    Natália Danzmann – an cailín as Brasil, ag caint agus ag canadh as gaeilge (The brazil girl, speaking and singing in Irish)

    Video: This Brazilian woman has a level of spoken Gaelic that’s absolutely astounding

    here is her page

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