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Review of The Last Lingua Franca: English Until the Return of Babel by

The Last Lingua Franca: English Until the Return of Babel

by Nicholas Ostler

Well, don’t I feel all unoriginal. Here I was, prepared to critique this book’s extremely dry, technical style … only to read some of the other reviews on Goodreads and discover it is almost universally remarked upon. There goes that approach!

To be fair, I was going to moderate my criticism by pointing out that if you are studying linguistics or have anything more than the passing interest in it that I do, then The Last Lingua Franca is the book for you. It could be a textbook for a linguistics class. Nicholas Ostler doesn’t just opine; he brings it: facts and charts and footnotes and endnotes and everything you could possibly want from an academic text. The prose is careful and precise enough that it verges at times like reading like a full-on academic paper. Did not expect that from a guy with a hair-do like the one in his author photograph (just goes to show you can’t judge someone based on their author photograph).

None of these are negatives. In fact, we should hope that more books could be as precise as this one, that more authors should refuse to bow to the sensationalist populism that occasionally infects the most well-meaning science writers. If anything, this should just prompt a discussion about the relationship between the readability and density of prose versus the benefit one gets from the information it contains. Ostler goes into incredible detail about the history and spread not just of languages but of the cultures and societies that used them. I learned a great deal about the Middle East, India, and Asia that I didn’t know before, even as I skimmed over probably twice as much.

One consequence—probably not primary but almost certainly intentional—of Ostler’s inexorable display of erudition is a reminder of our Eurocentric worldview in the West. This is particularly a problem for education. I learned a lot about Western history, or history from a Western perspective, in school. My knowledge of the timelines and scales for events like the advent of Islam, rise and fall of the Mughal and Ottoman Empires, etc., is scattered at best. These just aren’t things that we learn about in school, yet of course, Asia had its own dramatic history before Britain and the Netherlands spread their trade empire into its corners. So, good on Ostler for jolting me out of my comfortable Eurocentric wolrdview.

The history lesson is a bonus, but like I said, it didn’t hold my interest all that much. I was not expecting Ostler to get that technical about what makes the various languages tick. Maybe I should have. Reviews that reduce Ostler’s main argument to “machine translation will obviate the need for any lingua franca” are on the right track. I understand the criticisms that this last part is rushed considering it seems to be the thesis of the book. However, I agree with Ostler that a survey of the historical use and spread of lingua francas is essential to understanding how English, as the current dominant lingua franca across the world, might change in the future. Until we have a more rigorous and well-founded understanding of the history of languages, we can’t really form good opinions on what their futures might be.

So the history lesson is not just a bonus but an essential component of The Last Lingua Franca. And depending on your tolerance for the technical detail behind components of language, you’ll love it or be lukewarm towards it. But what of the main event, this discussion of the future of lingua francas and the celebration of our Robot Overlords?

I agree with those who find this section short considering it is, you know, the title of the book. Ostler could have spent just as much time exploring the history of machine translation attempts as he did on the history of Persian and Latin. He could delve into the intricacies of information theory, and actually explain how natural-language processing works. Instead he gives a half-hearted rendition of ASCII and Unicode’s inception. Then he claims that machine translation will eventually be “good enough” to serve as a lingua franca.

Here I’m inclined to be more charitable than others. Ostler’s argument here is not overly optimistic. For one thing, he’s right: machine translation is approaching the point where, in many situations, it is good enough—and that’s only going to get better. I know it’s easy to laugh at the stupid mistakes Google Translate or its cousins makes, but once upon a time we never thought these “computers” would be good for much. Technology continually surprises us, so I’m not going to bet against machine translation.

Speaking of which, Ostler could have spent more time looking at projects that involve technology and language. Crowdsourcing offers a vast potential for augmenting machine translation. Projects like Global Voices aim to make news from around the world accessible in over 30 languages. Such efforts could well contribute to removing the need for a lingua franca in much the same way machine translation would. If machine translation continues to get better, and crowdsourcing continues to become easier to do … well, there’s lots of possibilities.

In some ways, The Last Lingua Franca feels like two books awkwardly combined. The first could survive without the second; Ostler serves up an admirable history of lingua francas. The second requires the first, however—but it’s not itself very deeply developed or interesting. And that’s a shame, because it should be the shining moment for this book.

Ostler’s research and knowledge in this field is clearly impressive. The Last Lingua Franca is well-written, albeit in a tone that requires patience and careful attention. He certainly educations and opens eyes. But there are missteps along the way that make the book less successful than it might otherwise be.


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