The Loom of Language by Frederick Bodmer
We spent our summer holidays by a lake, set in the middle of a forest in Sweden—miles from anywhere, anyone or anything. It didn’t take long to start working through my grandfather’s book collection and to get hooked by Russian novels of the 19th century.
These all made a big impact on me; but so too did a book published in 1944 by Frederick Bodmer called The Loom of Language. “What language we habitually speak,” he says at the start, “depends upon a geographical accident.” It has nothing to do with biology, genetics or “the composition of the sperm or of the human egg... Language is a function of geography and of the need to communicate: that is why some peoples and cultures are multi-lingual and others less so.
A lot has changed in the way we think about languages today; but reading The Loom of Language was like a rite of passage—one that got me thinking about relationships between languages, about how they evolve, change and borrow from each other; about the role that trade, exchange and geography play in shaping history as a whole. I still pick it up from time to time to dip in.
I’ve never really thought how my life would have been different if my grandfather’s books had been about motor maintenance. Maybe I’d have spent more time outside!
Peter Frankopan discusses “The New Silk Roads: The Present and Future of the World,” Friday 31st May 2019, 5.30pm, Baillie Gifford Stage
Read more writers on the books that changed their lives