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The Power of Babel: A Natural History of…
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The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language (2001)

by John McWhorter

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8442610,672 (3.88)58
  1. 72
    Bastard Tongues: A Trailblazing Linguist Finds Clues to Our Common Humanity in the World's Lowliest Languages by Derek Bickerton (lorax)
    lorax: McWhorter talks a bit about creoles as clues to the structure of the first human language; Bickerton's book covers creoles in much more detail. Overall Bickerton's book isn't quite as good but still well worth reading.
  2. 00
    The Unfolding of Language by Guy Deutscher (keristars)
    keristars: Great companion books - two perspectives of virtually the same thing. McWhorter's looks more at the sheer variety (or lack thereof) of languages, while Deutscher's looks at the complexity within a single language.
  3. 00
    The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World by David W. Anthony (timspalding)
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» See also 58 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 27 (next | show all)
A fascinating survey of the myriad ways humans get to communicate with each other, not as a catalog of odd behaviors but as the evidence for a rather radical thesis: there are no dialects, all are languages (or the converse: there are no languages, all are dialects, perhaps). The historical-comparative method allows Whorter to bring example after example of the richness, variability and robustness of language. I don't know if professional linguists will accept the thesis or its argument, but to me was an extremely lucid and enlightneing book ( )
  vonChillan | Jan 12, 2014 |
The power of Babel. A natural history of language is an extended introduction to historical linguistics, particularly addressing the phenomenon on language change. The main idea proposed in the book is frightfully simple: there is no such thing as "a language", i.e. there is so much variation and language change going on at the same time, that it is hard to pin-point any language in a "finished" or fully-realized state.

Despite the very simple main idea of the book, The power of Babel. A natural history of language is hard to read, and, actually, rather boring. The author really goes over-board in giving examples. It seems the author's intention in writing the book was to include examples from as many languages as possible. Other authors, notably Jean Aitchinson's Language Change: Progress or Decay, explain the theory giving a limited number of examples. Thus, McWhorter's book includes all classic examples, such as Tok Pisin, in addition to a very large selection of other languages, pidgins, creoles and dialects.

The author repeatedly draws comparisons between the evolution of languages and evolution in the natural world, including concepts such as fossilization, survival and language death. Particularly the last chapter, about language death, attempts to preserve and document languages and the call to make efforts to rescue languages, closely resembles David Crystal's book Language Death.

McWhorter's fascination with the multitude of languages and the chaos in development is best expressed through the titles of his chapters, as they are, for instance, "The First Language Morphs into Six Thousand New Ones" (Chapter 1), "The Six Thousand Languages Develop into Clusters of Sublanguages" (Chapter 2), "The Thousands of Dialects Mix with One Another" (Chapter 3) and "The Thousands of Dialects of Thousands of Languages All Develop Far Beyond the Call of Duty" (Chapter 5).

Readers who share a fascination for language variety may enjoy the multiple upon multiple examples from many well-known and many exotic languages. However, for the reader interested in a good introduction into the subject, it may be advisable to read a book that is clear, without offering an over-kill of examples. There any many similar books about this subject available. ( )
  edwinbcn | Dec 9, 2013 |
This is an interesting look at how the world went from one language to the roughly 6000 we have today. At times, it was a bit too much "in the weeds" for me, with details of wording endings or how a particular word evolved. But, the author has a wonderful sense of humour which comes through to banish any boredom. ( )
  LynnB | Sep 16, 2013 |
Great telling of the history of language, the families, the web of it, that all leads back to the Koi San and the click languages of southern Africa. ( )
  br77rino | Feb 6, 2012 |
This to me read like a lecturer in linguistics has written a book based on his lectures for a term to slightly backward students.
The subject matter is absolutely fascinating, but he tends to ram home the point he's making three times over and then when the next lecture (chapter) begins, reiterates major points from previous lectures (chapters). I read this reasonably fast and so didn't require constant reminders of what had gone before (I got it the first time usually, thank you).
So if you have the stamina to cope with his repetitions, his sense of humour is lovely and comes across really well on the page (ad breaks during the lectures!).
I got about two thirds of the way through this and then finally couldn't cope with constantly being treated like an imbecile, so I moved on. Maybe I should have shown more patience... ( )
1 vote devilish2 | Jan 26, 2012 |
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Book description
In this entertaining romp through territory too often claimed by stodgy grammarians, McWhorter ranges across linguistic theory, geography, history, and pop culture to tell the fascinating story of how thousands of very different languages have evolved from a single, original source in a natural process similar to biological evolution. While laying out how languages mix and mutate over time, he reminds us of the variety within the species that speaks them, and argues that, contrary to popular perception, language is not immutable and hidebound, but a living, dynamic entity that adapts itself to an ever-changing human environment. Full of humor and imaginative insight, The Power of Babel draws its examples from languages around the world, including pidgins, creoles, and nonstandard dialects. McWhorter also discusses current theories on what the first language might have been like, why dialects should not be considered "bad speech," and why most of today's languages will be extinct in one hundred years. [Back cover, 2003 trade paperback edition]
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 006052085X, Paperback)

There are approximately six thousand languages on Earth today, each a descendant of the tongue first spoken by Homo sapiens some 150,000 years ago. While laying out how languages mix and mutate over time, linguistics professor John McWhorter reminds us of the variety within the species that speaks them, and argues that, contrary to popular perception, language is not immutable and hidebound, but a living, dynamic entity that adapts itself to an ever-changing human environment.

Full of humor and imaginative insight, The Power of Babel draws its illustrative examples from languages around the world, including pidgins, Creoles, and nonstandard dialects.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:04:55 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

"There are approximately six thousand languages on Earth today, each a descendant of the tongue first spoken by Homo sapiens some 150,000 years ago. How did they all develop? What happened to the first language?" "In this tour of territory too often claimed by stodgy grammarians, linguistics professor John McWhorter ranges across linguistic theory, geography, history, and pop culture to tell the fascinating story of how thousands of very different languages have evolved from a single, original source in a natural process similar to biological evolution. While laying out how languages mix and mutate over time, he reminds us of the variety within the species that speaks them, and argues that, contrary to popular perception, language is not immutable and hidebound, but a living, dynamic entity that adapts itself to an ever-changing human environment." "Full of humor and imaginative insight, The Power of Babel draws its illustrative examples from languages around the world, including pidgins, creoles, and nonstandard dialects. McWhorter also discusses current theories on what the first language might have been like, why dialects should not be considered "bad speech, " and why most of today's languages will be extinct within one hundred years." "The first book written for the layperson about the natural history of language, The Power of Babel is a dazzling tour de force that will leave readers anything but speechless."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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