Clerestory

Dry November: Day 16

November 16, 2018

I’ve also begun Nicholas Ostler’s Empires of the Word, which I’ve been meaning to read for years. It begins with an account of the dramatic 1519 meeting of the Old World and the New, which is recorded in much more detail than I had imagined. From Nahuatl to Yucatec Mayan to Spanish through interpreters, Motecuhzoma (more commonly rendered in the corrupted form “Montezuma,” and apparently pronounced “motēukzoma”) welcomed Cortés:

“You have graciously come on earth, you have approached your water, your high place of Mexico, you have come down to your mat, your throne, which I have briefly kept for you, I who used to keep it for you.”

A bizarre thing to come from the ruler of the largest empire in the Americas, at the height of its power, in his own city, which was larger than any in Europe. And strangely prescient, given the millions dead to come. “This exchange in Nahuatl and Spanish records a moment of destiny when the pattern was set for the irruption of one language community into another.”

It’s a brilliant device to open book which argues that a history of languages can give different insight from political or military histories. For example, though the Germanic tribes succeeded in replacing all rulers in the western Roman empire in the 5th Century AD, they left Spain, France, and northern Italy speaking versions of Latin, which they continue to speak to this day. So it could be argued that whatever happened to the nominal heads of state, as a cultural conquest it was a failure. Ostler argues that there is more to language than mere communicative expediency, that there is a shared cultural worldview that arises from it:

“A language community is not just a group marked out by its use of a particular language: it is an evolving communion in its own right, whose particular view of the world is informed by a common language tradition. A language brings with it a mass of perceptions, clichés, judgements, and inspirations. In some sense, then, when one language replaces another, a people’s view of the world must also be changing.”

Fascinating stuff.


It’s Friday and I’m looking forward to seeing people this weekend. Tonight we have a dinner party, and tomorrow my friend is celebrating getting his British citizenship. Not only did I attend his citizenship ceremony earlier this month, but when I got my own British citizenship in April 2016, the celebration wound up at his house. My first vote was for mayor of London; my second was for the referendum. When I got my citizenship I felt proud. That’s all I’ll say here.


Bryan Kam

I'm Bryan Kam. I live in London. I have more stuff online here.