Sunday, November 26, 2006

History of the [language]-speaking peoples

I'm still behind on my Economist readings, but today is a nice lazy Sunday, with lots of snow to provide a convenient excuse not to do anything useful. I'll have a nasty-huge pile of marking to do in less than two weeks, so for this weekend, I'm being gloriously relaxed.

So I'm trying to catch up a little with world news etc. The November 4th-10th issue of The Economist included a book review of A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900 by Andrew Roberts, which was pretty negative. This is a topic I find interesting - English is perhaps the most widely-spoken language in history, so a reasonable question a historian might ask would be "why do so many people speak English?". This book, apparently, doesn't do a good job of answering that question. It's too full of silly errors, large and small, to be considered a worthwhile treatment of the subject - which is why I'm not going to bother looking it up on Amazon for a link.

Jerry Pournelle has repeatedly made the assertion that the English-speaking peoples are the most warlike, and the most successful at war, in history. I don't know if this is true or not - certainly, much of the British Empire was captured at the point of a sword, and governed by the barrel of a gun, but large chunks were not, and other empires were at least as violent in their expansion and maintenance as Britain's. However, a strong case can be made for the argument that both World Wars (or the World War, for those who think of 1918-1938 as a mere lull) were effectively won by English-speaking nations.

Germany and Japan obviously lost WWII; Italy was another member of the axis, and was similarly reduced to smoldering rubble, though partly through the efforts of German forces. Russia could be argued to have won, as well, since Stalin had a seat at the victors' tables, but the shear scale of the destruction of pretty much everything East of the Rhine renders Russia's victory Phyrric, at best. This abbreviated history of WWII probably forms the basis for such wide-ranging declarations as Dr. Pournelle's.

In any case, I've long found the subject of languages, and how groups use a common language to acheive goals (or cope with the forces of history) fascinating. I'd like to read a good, long, comprehensive examination of the history of the English-speaking peoples, preferably covering as long a period as possible, like 500 AD to today. But I'd also like to read similar, comprehensive and broad-period histories of other languages. English has been remarkably successful, but it's not the only successful language of the last 4000 years. Every language spoken today is, by the definitions of Darwinian fitness, "successful".

In my mind, history as an academic discipline is a study of comparisons - this thing happened in this way here, but in a different way in some other place and time. So, if a history of the English-speakers is worth reading (and hence, worth writing), what great insights are to be found in similar themes for other languages?

The New World was largely conquered by three great European powers: England, France and Spain. Arguments can certainly made also for the successes of the Netherlands, Portugal, and the second-wave colonising diasporas of such countries as Italy, Ireland, Poland and Russia. So why did the English colonies successfuly collect into a handful of large states, most notably the formation of the USA after the Revolution, an act of Federalisation never equalled before or since, while the Spanish colonies rebelled piecemeal against their empire, and never managed to overcome regional tensions to become a single great nation, despite the best efforts of Bolivar et al. French colonies, similarly, seemed to just fade away - the loss of Quebec, the heart of French presence in the New World, apparently ushered in a period of general decline - the loss of Haiti followed, and despite the enlightened colonial government of other French caribean islands (Slavery and its horrific depradations aside, as it was an aside during the American Revolution) was unable to lead to the great achievements they deserved. OK, I'm rambling here: more concise opinion: French colonial government provided better representation in Paris to places like Guadelupe than did English in London for places like New York. So why are the Americas so dominated by English and Spanish?

Within Europe, the powers that "escaped" to the New World were on the Western periphery. Central civilizations, like Germany and Italy, did not expand to the New World edge, but fought for surivival in an intensely competitive center. The unifications of Germany and Italy represent other examples of the triumph of linguistic Federalism over parochialism - I don't know enough about any of these events to say which of the three I've mentioned was actually the most surprising achievement.

Moving beyond Europe, there are many other language / culture combinations that did remarkably well. The expansion of the Arabic-speaking Muslims out of Arabia surely has been well-studied, but has it been described in a manner fully parallel to the English navel-gazing of post-imperial historians? Saudi Arabia and Iran are perhaps the only two non-European countries in the world today that never suffered under colonial rule (or, converserely, they're the only two never to have benefited from being colonized by wankers) (an argument could probably be made to include Thailand in this short list; Afghanistan was never really conquered, sure, but then, it was never really self-governed beyond the level of feuding Warlords, either). Saudi Arabia, or at least the territory now occupied by Saudi Arabia, spawned the third great desert religion - Iran, in contrast, is a study in adapting to novel cultural conditions while maintaining one's identity. Iran was a nation when Rome was young, when the Turks crushed Constantinople, when da Gama was sailing past Mozambique. What could we learn from a history of the Farsi-speaking peoples?

In Africa, there are probably many such histories to be written. The only one I have heard hints of is in the Bantu expansion, in which various groups speaking related languages expanded across most of sub-saharan Africa something like 1000 years ago. They were making wootz steel independent of the metallurgists of Syria and India. At around the same time, the Polynesians were making their fantastic great ocean voyages to the last unsettled places on Earth.

China is the obvious choice for such a history, both for its famous monolithic stability through umpteen dynasties, and for its never-discussed bilingualism. Canadians periodically spasm about our bilingualism, lamenting over what is to be done about a country in which both French and English are held up as official languages. China has many more than two languages, but is dominated by Cantonese and Mandarin. I know next to nothing about these languages, except that Mandarin is more in the North, and Cantonese in the South, and that these two languages are at least as different from each other as English and French, leading to frustration and confusion on my part whenever someone discusses the language "Chinese". Which one? Hell, write histories of both, and let the details decide precedence and appropriate usage.

I own many books, leading to a logistical problem for my upcoming move. I intend to buy more, soon, particularly of new non-fiction that I hope to read in short order. Above are some ideas for books I'd like to have to worry about paying to ship in boxen.

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