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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 (original 2001; edition 2002)

by John McWhorter (Author)

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1,2032912,495 (3.86)64
There are approximately 6000 languages on earth today, the descendants 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 irreverent 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 popularperception, 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, patois 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 100 years. The first book written for the layperson about the natural history of language, Power of Babel is a dazzling tour de force that will leave readers anything but speechless.… (more)
Member:nickfoettinger
Title:The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language
Authors:John McWhorter (Author)
Info:W. H. Freeman (2002), Edition: 1, 336 pages
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The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language by John McWhorter (2001)

  1. 83
    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: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind's Greatest Invention 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 by David W. Anthony (timspalding)
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» See also 64 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 30 (next | show all)
If you are a linguistics grad student, you are absolutely going to love this book. For me (strong back, weak mind) this was a heckuva lot of intellectual heavy-lifting. The only parts I really understood were the descriptions of English, French, Spanish...that's about it. Grammatical nuances of Bantu and Cheyenne? Not so much. My eyes glazed over. I'd give it 3 stars due to personal taste; it deserves four. ( )
  Sandydog1 | May 18, 2019 |
In this wonderful book about how languages develop John McWhorter does a excellent job of showing the complexity and diversity of the forms of human verbal communication. The book is subtitled “A Natural History of Language” and McWhorter uses the analogy with biological evolution and biodiversity throughout, describing how language has developed over the millennia since the first language arose (probably in East Africa) parallels the slower branching of lifeforms from the first single celled organisms.

He gives many examples of how languages have changed and formed new languages, even within modern recorded history – especially amongst the patois created by the enforced mixing of people speaking different tongues that was a result of the slave trade. Explaining how pidgins develop in situations where the basics of communication are needed, he then shows how these become creoles – that is, languages formed from the constituent parts of others languages, often words from one or more language tacked onto the simplified grammar of another – and how it is a short step to these developing into full languagehood themselves – indeed, many languages that are designated 'creoles' are, in actual fact, fully-fledged languages but are retain the image either from historical precedent (that is, it began as a creole) or that the use of, for example, English words embedded into a different grammar sound 'simplistic' to the ears of a native English speaker (in a slightly different context he gives the example of an old-fashioned Hollywood Red Indian saying “white man say no kill buffalo, heap big lie”, which is actually how many Native Americans did speak English, and is perfectly acceptable grammar in many Amerindian languages).

Of course, while languages change by growth, accreting grammatical and linguistic flourishes that often seem massively redundant and (especially to the new learner) completely pointless as well as adopting and borrowing from other languages, language also changes by the speakers dropping sounds. McWhorter gives many examples of this, most notably in French and Italian which, while both equally descended from Latin, have changed in quite random ways in the sounds that have been dropped and the words that have been contracted into each other. A fairly recent example in English is also the word “every”, which well into the period of modern English was too separate words “ever each”, and from which the final “-ch” sound was easily dropped.

Recent history has also seen languages tending to be classified as 'advanced' or 'simple', those doing the classifying being from the Western world and, of course, classing their own language families as the advanced ones (indeed, this isn't just a recent phenomenon; the word 'barbarian' comes from the fact that the ancient Greeks thought the language of the Northern savages sounded like 'bar-bar-bar-bar'), while in actual fact developed world languages tend to be simpler than others for the simple reason that technology ossifies a language at a given moment, and both puts limits on what is acceptable grammar and vocabulary and slows down the rate of diversification and change. This begins to happen as soon as language is codified into a written form, but accelerates markedly with the introduction of printing. This is also, of course, the reason that many cultures differentiate 'proper' language from dialects of the language; McWhorter also goes to some length to argue that there are only dialects, it is simply that the particular dialect of a region which gained political and economic leverage at a moment in history becomes codified as the 'correct' form to which those of other regions are considered pale, inferior, brutish imitations. That there is really no difference between a language and a dialect – McWhorter's refrain is that there is only dialect – is, to anyone who has studied language at all in the past thirty years, not news and he does belabour the point slightly, although perhaps this is necessary for some of the audience. This is also where his extended metaphor breaks down somewhat; while in biological evolution survival is dependent upon 'fitness' to a situation, in the terms of language it is pure chance – both in terms of which languages / dialects gain prominence and power AND in how a language evolves. McWhorter goes to great pains to show that ere is no such thing as an inferior language – even to the point of stating that “Black English”, as spoken by many of young people of all colours in America and the UK, is a perfectly valid linguistic form, however it might make some people cringe – without ever recognising this slight flaw in his analogy.

However, this is a very, very minor quibble. This is a superb book that anyone with an interest in language should read. McWhorter writes from a position of immense knowledge with a gift for explanation and an eye for humour (trust me, there are some real laughs to be had herein), even if his gag reflex does occasionally get the better of him. More importantly, his passion for language – all language – suffuses every page. I wanted to say that his writing as as clear as Crystal, for my money Cambridge language expert David Crystal is perhaps the most lucid writer on language around, but the joy and enthusiasm that McWhorter brings to the subject is quite unmatched. ( )
  Pezski | Jun 8, 2017 |
8 Oct 2005
17 Feb 2014

I really enjoy McWhorter's books.

Library copy ( )
  Kaethe | Oct 16, 2016 |
Reading this mind-blower created four significant changes in my brain: 1) It changed my approach to learning languages, as I was previously stuck trying to learn them through the rules of my own. 2) It caused me to understand why certain cultures speak the language of another culture in the same curious ways. 3) It gave me clarity on the exceptions in the English language. 4) It shoved a helluva pile of information in which won't leave very soon. Penultimately satisfying was his sense of humor, which he brandishes via superfun and apropos pop-culture references which mostly did not go over my head. Most satisfying of all was his origin story, which allows the reader to crystally understand the writer's passion, and appreciate his works in a most emphatic manner. ( )
1 vote MartinBodek | Jun 11, 2015 |
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 |
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There are approximately 6000 languages on earth today, the descendants 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 irreverent 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 popularperception, 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, patois 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 100 years. The first book written for the layperson about the natural history of language, Power of Babel is a dazzling tour de force that will leave readers anything but speechless.

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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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