Review by Laura Marsh
The Last Lingua Franca: English Until the Return of Babel
By Nicholas Ostler
Walker & Co., 352 pp., $28
While English is the most widely-spoken lingua franca in history, so-called common or working languages can be much less pervasive. Elamite, for example, was the submerged administrative language of the Persian Empire in the sixth century B.C.E. All official documents were written down in Elamite, but they were both composed and read out in Persian, the language of the illiterate ruling class. Then there is Pali, the language of Theravada Buddhism. No longer used in everyday conversation, Pali is written in different scripts in Sri Lanka, Cambodia, and Burma, and sounds different when read aloud by Thai and Burmese speakers. The identity of the language is almost obscured by its profusion of forms.