Some quotes from Nicholas Ostler’s Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World (2005):
“All the languages whose careers we shall consider have written histories that extended back over a thousand years, and sometimes two or three times this long. In almost every case, literacy is a skill that was learnt from visitors or neighbours, and then became part of a language’s own tradition. As it happens, with the exception of Chinese, even the languages that originated writing, and so made the earliest use of it, have dropped their original system, and borrowed another.” — p. 11
The self-sufficient, resilient character of Egyptian and Chinese is revealed in many situations where they, or their speakers, had to interact with foreigners and their linguistic traditions. These dense, centralised societies were not always impervious to foreigner influence, even in the representation and use of their own languages. But for millennia they had sufficient equipoise, or sufficient inertia, to keep the outsiders under their own cultural control.
In the reminder of this chapter, we shall consider three aspects of their cultures where foreigners were bound to have an impact: the history of writing, their knowledge of and attitudes to foreign powers, and their responses to invasion. In every case, the languages’ steady continuity depended on a resolute refusal to see themselves, or conduct themselves, on others’ terms.” — p. 153
“Gradually losing aspects of its historic centre, in the form first of its monarchy, then of its political independence, then of its own national religion, and finally of its national form of Christianity, Egyptian weakened steadily over the ages, and has now, as a language simply recited in formal liturgy, come close to disappearing altogether. If the analogy is valid, Chinese, despite its billion speakers, might consider that it too has now entered on a perilous path. To accomodate the challenge from the modern, European-inspired, world, it has already given up the link with its own monarchy, an ideal with which it had identified for over two millennia. It has not given up its political independence, but it has, at least officially, resigned its own religion: since the fall of the monarchy, it has no longer actively sustained the value of Confucian, much less Taoist, ideas.
China’s political independence may yet save its language from the downward side of Egyptian. And even under foreign rule, Chinese has shown itself much more resilient, and indeed absorbent, than Egyptian ever was in its last two millennia. It has the advantage, which Egyptian never had, not just of high density but also of vast absolute population size. In its written mode, there is nothing yet in the history of Chinese to compare with Egyptian’s loss of its indigenous writing system and adoption of the Greek script, though romanisation may yet come.
In sum, the cultural retreats that we identified as leading to Egyptian’s demise all have their analogues in the recent history of China, except for political conquest. The writing may already be on the wall for the language now spoken by one fifth of mankind.” — p. 172-173