Volume 11, Number 3, March 2008


“I too will have my say; I too will tell what I know.

For I am full of words, and the spirit within me compels me;

Inside I am like bottled-up wine, like new wineskins ready to burst.

I must speak and find relief; I must open my lips and reply.

I will show partiality to no one.  Nor will I flatter any man.”

Job 32:17-21


“That which ordinary men are fit for I am qualified in, and the best of me is diligence.”

Earl of Kent

Shakespeare’s King Lear

Act I, scene iv, ll. 32-34


[“As I See It” is a monthly electronic magazine compiled and edited by Doug Kutilek.  Its purpose is to address important issues of the day and to draw attention to worthwhile Christian and other literature in order to aid believers in Jesus Christ, especially pastors, missionaries and Bible college and seminary students to more effectively study and teach the Word of God.  The editor’s perspective is that of an independent Baptist of fundamentalist theological persuasion.


AISI is sent free to all who request it by writing to the editor at: DKUTILEK@juno.com.  You can be removed from the mailing list at the same address.  Back issues sent on request.  All back issues may be accessed at http://www.KJVOnly.org]



“Holy Men of Old”


When I became a student at Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Missouri in the fall of 1971, I soon became acquainted with the “Articles of Faith” of the Baptist Bible Fellowship (BBF), a loose amalgamation of Baptist churches that owned and operated the college.


The first article (of twenty) addressed the subject of the Scriptures and their authority:


We believe that the Holy Bible was written by men supernaturally inspired; that is has truth without any admixture of error for its matter; and therefore is, and shall remain to the end of the age, the only complete and final revelation of the will of God to man; the true center of Christian union and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds and opinions should be tried.


Immediately following this are two explanatory statements, clarifying and defining terms in this article:


1. By “The Holy Bible” we mean that collection of sixty-six books, from Genesis to Revelation, which, as originally written, does not only contain and convey the Word of God, but IS the very Word of God.

2. By “Inspiration” we mean that the books of the Bible were written by holy men of old, as they were moved by the Holy Spirit, in such a definite way that their writings were supernaturally and verbally inspired and free from error, as no other writings have ever been or ever will be inspired.”

(Quoted from Baptist Bible College catalogue for 1972-3, p. 66)


I wish to focus on one particular phrase in the second of these explanatory statements, namely “written by holy men of old, as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.”  This of course is an echo of the phraseology found in 2 Peter 1:21: “. . .holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost,” (KJV). 


First, in passing, let it be noted, that the BBF had no problem in 1950 with interpreting and altering the precise wording of the KJV in adapting it for their statement of faith: “spake” is correctly understood as referring to the writing of Scripture, not merely its oral presentation, and second, the archaic “Ghost” of the KJV is up-dated to “Spirit.”


But what of this phrase “holy men of old”?  The Bible text reads “holy men of God.”  How and why did “of God” of 2 Peter 1:21 become “of old” in these articles of faith?  It seems obvious on the face of it that whoever originated the phrase “Holy men of old”--perhaps under the subconscious influence of the opening clause of the verse: “For prophecy came not in olden time by the will of man” (italics added)--misremembered the precise phraseology as “holy men of old” rather than the correct “holy men of God” and wrote it as such, no man noticing.  But who did this misremembering and miswriting?


Well, the wording is not original with the BBF (organized 1950) but is considerably older.  The “Articles of Faith” of the Baptist Bible Union (BBU), dating from 1923, read precisely the same here: “holy men of old.”  The BBU was a very short-lived fundamentalist Baptist group of the 1920s, led by J. Frank Norris, W. B. Riley and T. T. Shields, the latter of whom apparently is chiefly responsible for penning these articles of faith (see W. L. Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith, revised ed., 1969, pp. 384. 385).  J. Frank Norris must have very much liked these articles of faith, because they were adopted (with generally insignificant changes) by the World Baptist Fellowship (WBF) which he led and dominated.  The WBF articles of faith in the passage in question read precisely as the BBU articles (see Arlington Baptist College catalogue 1992-1995, p. 13).  (The BBF, being a non-doctrinal schism off of the WBF, obviously retained the WBF wording when it was formed).


But T. T. Shields himself did not originate this phrase “holy men of old.”  In 1878, the Niagara Bible Conference, a multi-denominational conference of theologically conservative--and pre-millennial--church leaders met and issued a statement of fundamental views held in common.  The first paragraph of this published statement, regarding the nature and authority of the Bible, reads:


We believe “that all Scripture is given by inspiration of God,” by which we understand the whole of the book called the Bible; nor do we take the statement in the sense in which it is sometimes foolishly said that works of human genius are inspired, but in the sense that the Holy Ghost gave the very words of the sacred writings to holy men of old [italics added-editor]; and that his divine inspiration is not in different degrees, but extends equally and fully to all parts of these writings, historical, poetical, doctrinal and prophetical, and to the smallest word, and inflection of a word, provided such word is found in the original manuscripts. (Quoted from David O. Beale, In Pursuit of Purity.  Greenville, S. C.; Unusual Press, 1980 pp. 375-6, listing as source, The Fundamentals of the Faith as Expressed in the Articles of Belief of the Niagara Bible Conference.  Chicago: Great Commission Prayer League, n.d.)


The Niagara Bible Conference was a major contributor to the growing debate between theological conservatives and rationalism-driven liberals. It is of course possible that the Niagara Conference statement of fundamental beliefs--whoever the author(s) was (were)--may have consciously or unconsciously influenced T. T. Shields as he worded the BBU Articles of Faith in 1923.   Or both may have been influenced by some earlier source.  And there is clear evidence that the phrase “holy men of old” dates yet earlier than the Niagara conference, even substantially earlier.


Methodist commentator Adam Clarke in remarks dated not later than December 30, 1831 includes this phraseology in his comments on the term “oracles of God” in Hebrews 5:12, noting that the term is sometimes used to denote, “The Old Testament in general; the holy men of old [italics added] having spoken by the inspiration of the Divine spirit, . . .” (Commentary, vol. VI, p.721; dated, p. 792).  I cannot imagine that this phrase, buried as it is deep in the body of Clarke’s commentary, is the original source for the phrase which shows up in both Niagara and Shields.  He himself surely picked it up and repeated it from some other source, but where?


I have yet to locate it in anything earlier than Clarke.  I thought perhaps the Anglican 39 articles or The Book of Common Prayer might be the source.  But I at least could not find it there.  And I thought of the Westminster Confession of Faith from the 1640s, but I could not find it there.  I went through Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, a book which often contributes to Christian vocabulary and phraseology.  I searched there without success.  Likewise with Matthew Henry’s famous commentary.


Perhaps some once-famous hymn employed this phrase.  If so, it has eluded me.


I even considered the possibility that some notable and influential edition of the KJV contained a typographical error in I Peter 1:21, but I could find no such reference, and none of the other English Bible versions of the 16th or 17th century accessible to me read “holy men of old.”


One thing is certain: if the phrase “holy men of old” (substituted unwittingly for “holy men of God”) in these diverse occurrences--BBF (1950) & WBF via BBU (1923; here the connection is certain), Niagara Bible Conference (1878) and Adam Clarke’s commentary (1831)--are all ultimately dependent on the same original source, it must have been famous, influential and long-enduring, but I am at a loss to discover what it might be.  I will be much indebted to any reader who can shed light on this matter with any additional references earlier or later.

---Doug Kutilek


[Note: there is a variant reading in the Greek text of 2 Peter 1: 21.  Rather than reading “holy men of God spoke,” as in the Byzantine text (and the TR and KJV), and other witnesses, some of which are early, the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament and the NASBu (along with other printed Greek text editions and English versions), based on some early and other witnesses, read “men spoke from God,” the difference being that the former reads “hagioi”--“holy” while the later reads “apo”--the preposition “from.”  In Greek capital letters, these would have looked very similar, which accounts for the how the variant arose.  One’s views of which witnesses best preserve the original wording of 2 Peter 1:21 will determine how the evidence is evaluated--editor]





My Grandfather’s Son: A Memoir by Clarence Thomas.  New York: Harper, 2007.  289 pp., hardback.  $26.95


His Honor Clarence Thomas is of course an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court, where he has served since his confirmation in 1991, a confirmation process infamous for the unbridled viciousness of the attacks on appointee Thomas by the Democrat-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee.  In his years on the Court, Thomas has always demonstrated a strong commitment to judicial restraint and “original intent” in interpreting the Constitution, rather than “legislating from the bench” as has been the general trend of the judiciary in the past half century.   As a consequence, Thomas was often been in the judicial minority of the court (though historically dead-on right), along with the late William Rehnquist, Anton Scalia and Byron White.  But this book is not about Thomas’ years as associate justice (it is a tradition among Supreme Court Justices not to write about any other current or living Supreme Court Justices or to report on the current doings of the Court).


Clarence Thomas, only the second justice of African heritage to serve on the Court, would seem to have been the most unlikely person to rise to such a position of authority and honor.  He was born into rural poverty near Savannah, Georgia in 1948.  His father abandoned the family and his single mother was incapable of raising two grade-school sons, so Clarence and his younger brother Myers were taken in by their maternal grandfather whom they always called “Daddy” and their step-grandmother, know as Aunt Tina (pronounced “Teenie”).  While the family was short on life’s comforts (though a huge step up from the squalid apartments the boys had lived in with their mother), they were well-fed, and well-disciplined.  Though only semi-literate, Daddy worked for himself delivering heating oil, and also farmed a small patch in the summer.  The boys were kept out of trouble by Daddy’s firm hand and his demands that they pull their own weight and do their own share of the work at home and on the farm.  Daddy never showed the boys much affection, but did set them a good example.


Daddy, unlike nearly the whole of his relations, converted from Baptist to Catholic, chiefly because of the shallow bombast and lack of substance that characterized the black Baptist preachers he knew.  This led him to send the boys to Catholic school, where they were strictly disciplined, and compelled to study much (Clarence had four years of Latin before heading to college), which prepared Clarence to succeed in later academic endeavors.  In his mid-teens, Clarence had an inclination to become a Catholic priest, undertook studies in high school toward that goal, and went off to seminary in Northwest Missouri, but after a year there, realized (in part because of the racism, prejudice and hypocrisy he experienced there) that the priesthood wasn’t for him; in fact, he would soon break--for more than a decade--any consistent or formal relationship with any church (a break repaired in the 1980s).   He had a very strained relationship with Daddy over “quitting,” which to Daddy was about the worst offence a person could commit.


After graduating from Holy Cross College (where he got involved for a time in radical campus politics, demonstrations and all that--it was the mid-1960s), he secured a law degree from Yale, thinking that that would be his open door to success.  It wasn’t.  He was saddled with huge school debts which he struggled for many years to pay off, besides trying to support a wife (they met while he was at Holy Cross), and a son.  This first marriage ended with Clarence leaving his wife in the early 1980s (he is rather coy about explaining the circumstances and causes, though he confesses to feeling deep and continuing guilt and regret over this failure).  He soon had custody of his son, and raised him to manhood.  Thomas remarried in 1987.


During college, law school, and his early years in the workplace, Thomas drank heavily--variously out of rage, boredom, emptiness and escapism; he gave it up completely in 1982.


After law school, Thomas worked for three years for Missouri Attorney General (later Senator) John Danforth; and from there went to Monsanto Chemical (which work he hated, though it paid well); he next joined Senator Danforth’s congressional staff in Washington, then was appointed by newly-elected President Reagan as assistant secretary for civil rights in the Department of Education (at age 32).  After Thomas’ service  there, Reagan appointed him as the head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a federal agency in disarray.  Thomas reorganized it and made it much more efficient and effective.  He was there until George H. W. Bush appointed him, first as a justice of the Federal District Court for Washington D.C., and then, when just 43, as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.


Thomas had adopted--or, developed--strongly conservative political views during the 1970s and 80s.  He had had instilled in him by Daddy a firm belief in personal responsibility, self-reliance and anti-dependency, and not making excuses for one’s circumstances.  Thomas was helped along the way in the development of his thinking by reading the writings of Black conservative authors Thomas Sowell (especially) and Walter Williams.  Thomas saw that Federal paternalism, through welfare, quotas, set-asides and such, however well-intentioned, had the effect of destroying personal responsibility and self-reliance among the black population, guaranteeing the perpetuation of the self-respect-destroying life-style of dependence on Federal handouts.


When Thomas was appointed to the Supreme Court, liberal Democrats launched the most vicious smear campaign and personal attack on any Supreme Court appointee in history, even worse than that which Robert Bork had undergone two years earlier.  It was simply unthinkable to liberals that a Black man from the rural south (or anywhere else) could be politically conservative, and, much more bigotedly on their part, that he could have earned his way to this high office by ability and effort.  The capstone of the Senate’s “high-tech lynching” of him (as Thomas graphically described it in nationally-televised testimony) was the completely unsubstantiated and unquestionably perjured testimony of a disgruntled former EEOC staffer, Anita Hill, whom Thomas had a decade before reluctantly hired as a favor to a friend, and had repeatedly helped out with various job recommendations after her departure from EEOC.  Her accusations of sexual harassment were expressly contradicted by many witnesses, and were wholly out of character for Thomas.  Yet Ted Kennedy (the crown prince of debauchery and sexual misconduct in Washington) and the other Democrats had the brazen hypocrisy to sit in judgment of Thomas and vote against his confirmation.


Thomas has proven to be, in his first 16 years on the court, one of the finest justices to serve, one who takes his job, and the Constitution as written, very seriously.

---Doug Kutilek



Some quotes from My Grandfather’s Son by Clarence Thomas:


“I didn’t think it was a good idea to make poor blacks, or anyone else, more dependent on government.  That would amount to a new kind of enslavement, one which ultimately relied on the generosity--and ever-changing self-interests--of politicians and activists.  It seemed to me that the dependency it fostered might prove as diabolical as segregation, permanently condemning poor people to the lowest rung of the socioeconomic ladder by cannibalizing the values without which they had no long-term hope of improving their lot.” (pp. 56-7)


Final testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee:


“Senator [Joseph Biden-D, committee chairman], I would like to start by saying unequivocally, uncategorically that I deny each and every single allegation against me today that suggested in any way that I had conversations of a sexual nature or about pornographic material with Anita Hill, that I ever attempted to date her, that I ever had any personal sexual interest in her, or that I in any way ever harassed her.


Second, and I think a more important point, I think that this today is a travesty.  I think that it is disgusting.  I think that this hearing should never occur in America.  This is a case in which this sleaze, this dirt, was searched for by staffers or members of this committee, was then leaked to the media, and this committee and this body validated it and displayed it in prime time across our entire nation.


How would any member on this committee, or any person in this room, or any person in this country like sleaze said about him or her in this fashion, or this dirt dredged up, and this gossip and these lies displayed in this manner?  How would any person like it?


The Supreme Court is not worth it.  No job is worth it.  I am not here for that.  I am here for my name, my family, my life, and my integrity.  I think something is dreadfully wrong with this country, when any person, any person in this free country would be subjected to this.  This is not a closed room.  There was an FBI investigation.  This is not an opportunity to talk about difficult matters privately or in a closed environment.  This is a circus.  It is a national disgrace.  And from my standpoint, as a black American, as far as I am concerned, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas, and it is a message that, unless you kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you, you will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U. S. Senate rather than hung from a tree.”

(pp. 270-271)



Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World by Nicholas Ostler.  New York: Harper Perennial, 2005.  614 pp., paperback.  $17.95


Blurbs inside and on the outside of the cover of this work inform us that the author’s linguistic attainments include first-class honors in Classics (Greek and Latin) at Oxford University, a Ph. D. in linguistics and Sanskrit from MIT, as well as mastery of Chibcha, an important ancient language in South America at the time of the Spanish conquest.  He reportedly has a working knowledge of 26 languages in all.  The contents of the book suggest that these claims are not exaggerated.  Dr. Ostler is neither a political nor a theological conservative, though this does not greatly detract from the book, except for scattered statements here and there, from which we must, sometimes vigorously, dissent.


Dr. Ostler traces the rise and fall of a series of dominant, international lingua francas (particularly in Western civilization), from the earliest literacy to the present, including Sumerian, Akkadian, Aramaic, Persian, Greek, Latin, Arabic, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian and English, with Egyptian, Chinese and Sanskrit (among others) thrown in for good measure.  He also demonstrates that the factors that make for the rise and persistence of an international language are by no means fixed, but what made for the rise of one language to prominence failed to have the same results with other languages at other times. 


Sumerian, in Mesopotamia, was the first language reduced to writing (cuneiform), circa 3000 B. C., more or less (obviously, other languages existed and were developing, though “off the radar” of history at this point).  It persisted as a spoken language for more than a thousand years, and as a written language of scribes for another millennium, but it was superceded as the dominant vernacular (spoken) and diplomatic and archival (written) language by a Semitic tongue, Akkadian. 


Akkadian, in turn, held center stage through the Ancient Near East for a millennium and a half, from around 2000 B. C. until the fall of the Neo-Babylonian Empire (and the last known written text in Akkadian dates to the first century A. D.!).  The Egyptians, Hittites, Ugaritians and other non-Akkadian speakers commonly used Akkadian as their diplomatic language.  Hammurabi’s law code is in this language, as are the famous archives of King Asshurbanipal of Assyria.


As the international language, Akkadian was replaced by a sister language, Aramaic, which was the vernacular of all of Mesopotamia (including the Persian Empire, while it lasted) and beyond from about 1000 B. C. until around 800 A. D., its collapse a consequence of the Moslem conquest, and its replacement being the related language Arabic (Mesopotamia has been dominated by one Semitic language or another for more than 4000 years).


Aramaic had a rival in Mesopotamia in the form of Greek for a thousand years after the conquests of Alexander the Great (before 332 B. C.), and his planting of Greek culture and language in pockets throughout the region.  Greek not only spread from its original base crowding the shores around the Aegean Sea to as far east as India, but it spread south into Egypt, and west into Italy, and was the international language of the 1st century in the Roman Empire (explaining why the NT, an international, missionary document, was written in Greek, not Hebrew or Aramaic, languages known and used by the Jews).  Yet in spite of a thousand years in place, when the collapse of Greek came, it came quickly, leaving very little trace behind in the languages that took its place.  Indeed, though we have written Greek documents covering 3,500 years (1500 B. C. to present), the continued existence of Greek as a living language is almost a fluke, an accident.  It did not generate a whole series of daughter languages (as Latin did), and its isolation to a narrow strip of land bordering the western shore of the Aegean Sea made it highly susceptible to conquest and extermination.  Yet it persists (perhaps in part because of its classical and religious heritage and connection).


Greek gave way in the Western Roman Empire to Latin, which was spread by Roman commerce, conquest, and colonies of native-speakers.  Over time, these diverse and mutually-remote localities gave rise to differing dialects, and by the 8th-9th centuries A. D., the mutually unintelligible Romance languages, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Romanian, Italian and lesser members of the clan had emerged.  Latin died as a vernacular, or rather was metamorphosized into a family of descendants. 


But Latin, perhaps because it was the language of the Church in its Bible version and liturgy, persisted and even prospered as the scholar’s tongue through the Middle Ages (English-speaking John Wycliffe wrote largely in Latin; these Latin writings were read by Czech-speaking Jon Hus, whose Latin writings inspired by Wycliffe were read by German-speaking Martin Luther).  Virtually the whole of the leaders of the Reformation (and counter-Reformation) in diverse countries and places were fluent in Latin and communicated with one another via that international scholars’ language.  The major Bible commentaries of the 16th and 17th centuries were all written in Latin.  The Bible texts and versions in Brian Walton’s famous Polyglott Bible [1654-58] were all accompanied by a literal translation--into Latin.  Linnaeus, when he sought to establish a scientific taxonomy of all plants and animals, he chose Latin as the language of classification (a system still used, and indeed, irreplaceable).  But Latin died a second death, when it was gradually replaced as the scholars’ language, starting in the 18th century, by national vernaculars French, German, English and more.


The rise of English as the primary international language today (native speakers, nearing 400 million, English-as-a-second-language speakers, about 3 times as many.  In 1980, only 20% of Europeans spoke English; now it runs to about 33%), was all but impossible to foresee in 1500.  English was the language of a small, isolated island nation of the northwest coast of the continent of Europe.  As a language, it was much overshadowed by French, Spanish, Italian and German, among others, whose speakers were more numerous, and whose nations were much larger in size, wealth, and power.  In the New World, the English were slow getting started as far as trade, exploration and settlement go (more below under Spanish), and were in competition with French, Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish speakers for control and influence in the New World (in Central and South America, the Spanish and Portuguese, clearly won that contest).  English predominated in North America chiefly because there was immigration in mass by tens of thousands of native English speakers (there were proportionately many fewer French or Dutch speakers, and the small Spanish influence was restricted to Florida in the south).  These English-speaking immigrants generally occupied the territories originally held by native American populations, sometimes by conquest, but mostly by replacement of populations decimated or even exterminated by European diseases against which the Indians had no resistance (the native Americans, in turn, passed some diseases to the Europeans, including syphilis, introduced into Europe by Columbus’ sailors, who contracted it from the Caribs).


The world-wide spread of English was facilitated in part by English sea trading to the far-flung reaches of the earth, but such trade was also true of the Dutch, Portuguese, and Spanish, who were not behind the English in their trading activities and in some places greatly exceeded them (notably Africa, South America, and the islands of Southeastern Asia).  British military power, and dominance of the seas in the 18th and 19th centuries (to protect their international trade) also contributed to the spread of English, as did the rise of the American nation to international military and economic predominance in the 19th and especially the 20th century.  But it could all have been vastly different, if, say, the Spanish Armada had succeeded in subduing England or destroying its navy in 1588.  Or if the waves upon waves of immigrants to America, mostly non-native speakers of English, had held on to their Old World tongues and formed permanent German-speaking, French-speaking, Swedish-speaking and other enclaves in America, thereby linguistically and culturally fragmenting the country.


It is impossible to predict the future place of English in world languages, whether it will persist at present levels, grow yet more, or begin to recede (replaced on the world stage but who knows what).  English is currently under heavy pressure from Spanish in all of the desert southwestern States and several others of the U.S., the world’s largest English-speaking country.


Ostler’s presentation of the spread of Spanish in Central and South America was, to me, one of the most interesting parts of the book.  The Spanish came, though few in numbers, and conquered militarily the native populations.  They imposed on them their religion--Romanism--and their culture and language.  Their missionary zeal, albeit much misdirected and espousing a Gospel that was fatally corrupted by human tradition, puts the inactive and indifferent European Protestants to utter shame.  By 1550--almost a century before there was any English Protestant attempt to convert the Indian populations of Massachusetts, there were more than 800 Spanish Catholic priests in the Americas catechizing, teaching, converting and baptizing the native populations to Catholicism.  Nearly the whole of the Bible had been translated into a native Indian language by 1550 (no Protestant translation of the Bible into any New World Indian language was achieved until 1663 when John Eliot published his Algonquian version, with no other notable efforts for many decades thereafter).  The Spanish priests were ordered to study and learn the native languages for the sake of “evangelism.”  As a consequence, Spanish linguists had identified and to some degree studied and described some 493 different Indian languages as of 1897 (an estimated 2,000 existed in the Americas in 1500, some 350 of them in Central America alone).  Pre-historic migrations can often be traced by identifying related but geographically isolated tongues.  For example, the Aztec language of Mexico is related to Paiute and Shoshone, Indian languages spoken on the Oregon coast!


Other languages are dealt with along the way--Celtic, Egyptian, Sanskrit, Russian, and Chinese among them. 


Celtic--the family which includes such remnant tongues as Welsh, Irish and Breton--once dominated central and northwest Europe, from just south of the Alps in Italy over all of France, central and southern Germany, and all the way to the Black Sea.  Yet today, having been long squeezed by Germanic tongues from the north and Romance languages from the south, the Celtic family is very near extinction as living languages.


Egyptian persisted as a living language from circa 3000 B. C. and before, until the Moslem conquests, the final form of the language being called Coptic.  It persists as a liturgical language of the small and severely persecuted Coptic Church.  The deserts surrounding the Nile both served to protect Egyptian from intrusive foreign languages, but also (along with a very complex writing system), prevented its spread to other lands.


Sanskrit, an Indo-European language related remotely to English, French, Russian, Greek and the rest of the family, entered the Indian subcontinent in pre-historic times and was imposed on the native populace of unknown stock and tongue by the conquerors.  Sanskrit split into numerous dialects over time (not unlike the situation with the Romance languages) and is the ancestor of many of the languages of central and northern (but not southern) India.  Being the sacred language of Buddhism, Sanskrit spread as an international language as Buddhism spread throughout southeastern and east Asia, and had a widespread use and influence all but unknown and unrecognized in the west.  Sanskrit is dead as a vernacular, but persists as a language of religion.


Russian is the most widely known and commonly spoken of the Slavic languages (a family including Belarus, Ukrainian, Polish, Czech, Slovak, Slovenian, Serbian, Croatian, Bulgarian and some lesser languages).  Russian is a modern development from Old Church Slavonic, the liturgical language of the Russian Orthodox Church.  And of course Russian was the language of the Soviet Empire, a language forced on subject nations for 2 or 3 generations in the 20th century, but which today has been abandoned in the curriculum of most former Soviet Republics and Warsaw Pact nations.  Conquest and force generate little desire to learn the conqueror’s tongue (I discovered in December 2007 that most Ukrainians over 30 speak both Russian and Ukrainian, while those under 30 rarely know Russian at all).  The base of Russian speakers is decidedly shrinking.  (Sometimes a conqueror’s language has had large impact on the subject peoples, as Norman French did on Anglo-Saxon after 1066--English vocabulary is about 60% Latin-based, mostly mediated through French.  On the other hand, the Germanic-speaking Goths conquered the Roman Empire in the 5th century, and dominated Spain for 250 years, yet left virtually no trace of influence in the developing Spanish language).


Chinese has a very long written history--more than 4,000 years.  It has persisted through innumerable dynasties, invasions and social upheavals, emerging as the language today with the most numerous native speakers.  However, Chinese is fragmented into numerous, often mutually unintelligible dialects, has never spread far beyond its native borders, and is hindered by so complex a writing system that it is unlikely to ever attain world significance without a change in the writing system (along with other matters).


The top ten languages today in number of native or second-language speakers are: 1. Mandarin Chinese; 2. English; 3. Hindi; 4. Spanish; 5. Russian; 6. Bengali; 7. Portuguese; 8. German; 9. French; 10. Japanese.  All of these are Indo-European family languages except the first and the last, and 6 of those 8 are originally Europe-restricted tongues.  The next 10 are: 11. Urdu; 12. Korean; 13. Wu Chinese; 14. Javanese; 15. Telugu; 16. Tamil; 17. Yue Chinese; 18. Marathi; 19. Vietnamese; 20 Turkish; of which none is a Europe-based language.  Half the world’s population speaks one of the top 12 languages.


Ostler does make some factual errors along the way.  He says, inexplicably, that the Semitic languages’ original home was in Africa (p. 527 n).  Impossible.  Mesopotamia, with absolute certainty.  And he refers to “St. Mark” the evangelist as an “apostle” (p. 132).  He refers to the Biblical Babel account as “myth” (p. 558) and stupidly says that “language diversity is not a liability for the human race,” (ibid.) which of course it very frequently is, resulting in many-a “failure to communicate.”


I have not even begun to mention all the notable and interesting matters in this book  (there is, among them, an abundance of good maps of language distribution at various periods in history).  An excellent pan-historical survey of language development and change--a linguist’s delight.

----Doug Kutilek



“In our country, language teaching is often misrepresented as misguided drudgery; and really to learn another language can often seem a nigh impossible task.  There is no royal road to it, but gold glints in unexpected places all along the path.  For me it has always been the surest route to new worlds that lie beyond my imagination.  Sic itur ad astra [Latin: “Such is the way to the stars”--from Virgil--ed.], p. xiv


“Once when I asked a chieftain in a certain province if he was a Christian, he said, ‘I am not yet quite one, but I am making a beginning.’  I asked him what he knew of being a Christian, and he said: ‘I know how to swear to God, and play cards a bit, and I am beginning to steal.’”  (Quoting Fray Domingo San Tomas, Arte de la La Lengua General. . .del Peru (1560), chapter xxiii), p. 334.  [How sad!--ed.]