Tore Janson

The History of Languages

An Introduction

University Press 2012

New Books in HistoryNew Books in LanguageNew Books in Politics & SocietyNew Books Network April 16, 2012 Chris Cummins

It’s a sobering thought that, but for the spread of English, I wouldn’t be able to do these interviews. In particular, I don’t speak...

It’s a sobering thought that, but for the spread of English, I wouldn’t be able to do these interviews. In particular, I don’t speak Swedish, and I’m not going to try to speak Latin to a world expert on the subject. Fortunately for my purposes, English has reached a level of saturation, and thus Tore Janson is able to explain to us why that is.

The History of Languages: An Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2012) gives a brief synopsis of some of the major trends in language change over the course of recorded history. Indo-European is discussed, but the scope of the book is much wider, turning to the Bantu and Australian language families, and also to the written traditions of China and Ancient Egypt. Rather than being concerned with the linguistic regularities of change, Prof. Janson’s focus is much more on the circumstantial historical causes of change, and his work is a useful complement to work in historical linguistics – in addition to being a very enjoyable read in its own right.

In this interview, we talk about some of the points he raises: the dissimilarity between the languages of contemporary hunter-gatherer societies, the motivations for the emergence of written language and its role as a stabilising influence on society, and the foundations of linguistic identity in the modern nation-state, among others. And we consider the parallel between Latin in England and Arabic in Persia, as examples of how seemingly inevitable linguistic change can unexpectedly falter.

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