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The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language

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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 immut 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.


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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 immut 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.

30 review for The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language

  1. 5 out of 5

    David Rubenstein

    For some strange reason, I am fascinated by the study of linguistics. I have read all the books by Stephen Pinker, as well as books by a few other authors on the subject. This book, by linguist John McWhorter, is also fascinating, although his perspective is totally different from that of Pinker. The theme of this book is that languages seem to be analogous to animal and plant evolution. While animals and plants are continuously evolving, there is no "direction". Living species are not becoming m For some strange reason, I am fascinated by the study of linguistics. I have read all the books by Stephen Pinker, as well as books by a few other authors on the subject. This book, by linguist John McWhorter, is also fascinating, although his perspective is totally different from that of Pinker. The theme of this book is that languages seem to be analogous to animal and plant evolution. While animals and plants are continuously evolving, there is no "direction". Living species are not becoming more advanced--they are simply changing in response to their environments. Likewise, languages evolve, they split into sub-varieties, they hybridize, the revivify, they evolve functionless features, and they can even be genetically altered. And, languages can go extinct. Most of the world's six thousand languages will go extinct over time. Languages, like biological species, seem to split off from their parents when they are physically isolated from their neighbors. But, with the globalization of trade and cultures, languages nowadays are becoming extinct faster than new ones can develop. One of the points that McWhorter tries to make, is that there actually is no such thing as a true language, only dialects. Each language is made of multiple dialects. As an example, a particular dialect may be spoken in Town A, and residents of Town A can easily converse with speakers of a related dialect in Town B. And, people in Town B can talk with Town C and Town C can talk with Town D. But, people in Towns A and D are totally unable to talk with one another; their dialects are just too dissimilar to be able to converse. So, where is the boundary between dialect and language? McWhorter describes an analogy from the famous Peanuts comic strip. The main character, Charlie Brown, is only six years old, but--he is bald! The question is why? I would not have guessed the reason, which is that in the 1950's, when the comic strip began, baldness was a symbol of dopiness. But since then, the symbolism has been lost. Likewise, original meanings and nuances in languages change over time, until we no longer recognize them. Another main theme in this book is the decorative clutter that builds up in old languages. When you are learning a foreign language, you encounter these Dammit realizations; how are you ever going to learn all these confabulating declensions, cases, tenses, and conjugations! In fact, how can a native-born child ever learn all of this! And, interestingly, the more "primitive" hunter gatherer societies speak languages that are the most complex of all! And why must all this complexity exist? Do languages even need this complexity? The answer is simply, no, this is just the accretion of decorative clutter. But, when the people of two languages meet each other, and a third utilitarian language starts up, a pidgin or a creole language, it is relatively free of all this clutter; this new language contains just enough complexity to be understandable, and no more. For example, there is a pidgin language spoken in Melanesia named Tok Pisin; it sounds like baby-talk English, in that it uses a simple, distorted English as its vocabulary foundation. It has only a single preposition. The future tense is constructed simply by saying "bye and bye". But it is a real language with a real grammar, simple as it is. It is too new to have decorative clutter. If the language does not disappear, it will eventually accumulate decorative clutter. This book is fascinating! It is filled with mild humor and it resonates with examples from today's popular culture. I highly recommend it.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Kat Kennedy

    McWhorter has written a comprehensible, entrancing overview of how language has developed, changed, morphed and been reinvented millions of times in human history. Thanks to MrWhorter, I now know that what I speak and write isn't just English. I speak a dialect of Sydney English circa 2000. What McWhorter achieves here is a fascinating journey through many, many languages (or regional dialects as McWhorter would have it) that span across the globe and time. McWhorter is funny. Despite being a boo McWhorter has written a comprehensible, entrancing overview of how language has developed, changed, morphed and been reinvented millions of times in human history. Thanks to MrWhorter, I now know that what I speak and write isn't just English. I speak a dialect of Sydney English circa 2000. What McWhorter achieves here is a fascinating journey through many, many languages (or regional dialects as McWhorter would have it) that span across the globe and time. McWhorter is funny. Despite being a book aiming to impart knowledge, McWhorter's personality, flare and passion for the subject comes across very strongly. Mostly the book is accessible to the layman. Occasionally McWhorter would get ahead of himself and assume a knowledge base of his audience that this little reader didn't have. But for the most part, he translates his knowledge very well across the medium of the written word. Which, may I add, he seems to dislike. It is the only thing I would challenge him (since I'm not educated enough in linguistics to argue effectively on anything else). He views reading and writing as a barrier to language's natural development. With the introduction of the written word, McWhorter claims, English, Chinese, Japanese etc have been developing far more slowly than what they would if they were "wild" and that they've changed to reflect their written versions more than their spoken versions. Whilst I certainly understand a linguist's frustration with this - I think literacy is a valid progression to language. Sure, it is a new and (compared to the long history of spoken language) untried version of language but no less valid than any other dialect of English. Which reminds me that McWhorter's arguments mean that I can no longer deny the friend requests of people who rite liek dis cos thier kool. Maybe he had a point after all...

  3. 4 out of 5

    Christopher

    As a graduate student of historical linguistics, I often find myself asked to explain aspects of contemporary language change or the reconstruction of proto-languages to interested friends or family. Unfortunately, I don't have much of a gift of simplifying the field for average people, and I've longed for a simple introduction that I could recommend. I was very happy to discover John McWhorter's THE POWER OF BABEL: A Natural History of Language, which introduces historical linguistics, squashes As a graduate student of historical linguistics, I often find myself asked to explain aspects of contemporary language change or the reconstruction of proto-languages to interested friends or family. Unfortunately, I don't have much of a gift of simplifying the field for average people, and I've longed for a simple introduction that I could recommend. I was very happy to discover John McWhorter's THE POWER OF BABEL: A Natural History of Language, which introduces historical linguistics, squashes myths about language change all too common among the public, and shows the wonderful diversity of human tongues all in an easily approachable way. McWhorter's book often succeeds, but I was troubled by some errors. This review is mainly meant towards fellow professionals also looking for a book they may give to interested acquaintances. McWhorter's book consists of seven chapters and an epilogue. The first, "The First Language Morphs into Six Thousand New Ones", explains sound change and grammaticalization, the key processes of language evolution, mainly using French and English examples. In chapter 2, "The Six Thousand Languages Develop into Clusters of Sublanguages", McWhorter introduces the concept of "dialects", showing that within any given speech community there is a wealth of variants, mutually intelligible but excitingly diverse. Chapter 3, "The Thousands of Dialects Mix with One Another" discusses lexical borrowing, while Chapter 4, "Some Languages Are Crushed to Powder but Rise Again as New Ones" is about the most extreme case of language mixing, pidgins and creoles. Here the example pidgin is Russenorsk, that curious mix of Russian and Norwegian that don't deserve the obscurity into which it has fallen. Chapter 5, "The Thousands of Dialects of Thousands of Languages All Developed Far Beyond the Call of Duty" is important. Here McWhorter explains the seemingly unnecessary features languages may take on, such as grammatical gender and complicated verbal inflections. He makes the important point that the shape of a language says nothing about the intelligence of the people who speak it, that a language serves its community perfectly well. Chapter 6, "Some Languages Get Genetically Altered and Frozen" is about the rise of standard languages out of writing. The final chapter is the most depressing, for "Most of the World's Languages Went Extinct" is about language death. An epilogue, "Extra, extra! The Language of Adam and Eve" attempts to debunk the notions that a Proto-World can be constructed, which tend to appeal to the general public even though they lack any scientific basis. McWhorter devastatingly dismisses the work of e.g. Merrit Ruhlen and, in his darker hours, Joseph Greenberg, to the great applause of this reader. Many readers have found fault with two aspects of McWhorter's book. The first is the humourous tone he adopted in trying to make the heady details of historical linguistics appealing for those without training. He makes reference to a massive amount of sitcoms and comic books, sometimes makes use of McDonald's advertising as an example of international language contact, and likes to phrase things in a clever manner. I found this unobjectionable, for McWhorter has a very similar sense of humour to my own. However, what is objectionable are the factual errors that pop up in the book. Other reviewers have mentioned some, but for the one I found most annoying, I'll throw in McWhorter's claim that Russian has borrowed from Old Church Slavonic, "based on Bulgarian". Well, Old Church Slavonic was based on the Slavonic dialect of Thessaloniki, outside the Kingdom of Bulgaria (and some notable OCS manuscripts have no connection at all to Bulgaria), and furthermore Russian didn't borrow from OCS, but rather from a later language called Church Slavonic (I don't see any yers in these borrowed words, do you?). One wonders if the book was reviewed by other members of the linguistics community before publication, or if the publisher just assumed that with a popular audience it could just throw it out there. THE POWER OF BABEL is, as far as I know, the only book that gently explains concepts of historical linguistics to the laymen, at the same time debunking various myths of language superiority or great Eskimo vocabularies. It's worth checking out, in spite of its faults.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship

    4.5 stars This is a fascinating and readable exploration of language development and change; it feels like the book equivalent of a masterfully-taught Intro to Linguistics course, which turned out to be exactly what I was looking for. Admittedly, I’m an easy sell right now because I both find linguistics fascinating and for some reason have read very little on the subject, but if you happen to be in a similar boat this book would be an excellent choice. Some topics covered in the book: Language cha 4.5 stars This is a fascinating and readable exploration of language development and change; it feels like the book equivalent of a masterfully-taught Intro to Linguistics course, which turned out to be exactly what I was looking for. Admittedly, I’m an easy sell right now because I both find linguistics fascinating and for some reason have read very little on the subject, but if you happen to be in a similar boat this book would be an excellent choice. Some topics covered in the book: Language change over time: Human speech is ever-changing, and not just its slang. Sounds change, often with unstressed last syllables dropping off (“name” in English was once pronounced NAH-muh) and vowel sounds changing in predictable ways. Rules of grammar get extended to places they didn’t previously belong, and words that had an independent meaning become simple pieces of grammar. Sounds get rebracketed: for instance, “a nickname” was originally “an ekename,” meaning “an also-name.” And words change their meaning: “silly” for instance once meant “blessed,” then “innocent,” then “weak,” before arriving at “foolish.” Over the centuries, language gradually changes so much as to become unrecognizable: hence, Latin becoming all the Romance languages in different parts of Europe. There’s no hard line on when this happened; local speech just diverged more and more from Latin over the years. Languages vs. dialects: There is no bright line defining when a mode of speech is a different language, vs. a different dialect. Nor is there anything special about “standard” dialects, which were typically just the form of speech of the most powerful at the time they decided to standardize the language—so, “standard” English and French today are just based on the London and Paris dialects. Sometimes, political/cultural unification and shared writing systems cause what are functionally different languages to be seen as different dialects (German, Chinese, Arabic). But separate countries can cause very similar languages to diverge (the author posits that Spanish and Portuguese are really no more different than different dialects of German—though from his illustrations of comics translated into Hochdeutsch, Schwäbisch and Swiss, those are indeed different languages!). This is a wildly complex issue: speakers of one language might understand another more readily than vice-versa, while dialect continuums can mean each individual mode of speech is mutually intelligible with those closest to it, while the ones at far ends of the spectrum are not. Language mixing: All languages have mixed with others and picked up words, and much as we may feel that languages as they now exist ought to be kept “pure,” that’s against the natural order of things. English, however, is unusual in how much it has mixed: 99% of our words come from other languages (though our most basic ones do descend from Old English, including 62% of the most commonly used words). This actually makes it harder for English-speakers to learn other languages: we’ve picked up from many different places, but it leaves us without a clear sister tongue that’s easy to master in the way going from one Romance language to another is. Meanwhile, languages also pick up elements of grammar from each other, and in some places multiple languages are intertwined into one. Pidgins and creoles: Pidgins are formed when people need to communicate in a language they’ve only imperfectly learned (for instance, for trade). Creoles, on the other hand, happen when a pidgin becomes someone’s primary method of communication—this has typically happened in the context of slavery, with native speakers of many different languages needing to communicate with each other, and without the opportunity to study the dominant tongue. Creoles fill out a language with the additional grammar and vocabulary needed to communicate, and their lack of frills makes them probably closest to the original human language. Whether something is a pidgin, creole or neither also exists on a continuum. Language overgrowth: Languages that are old, or isolated, tend to develop baroque grammar and other difficulties: lots of prefixes and suffixes, consonant or vowel changes, tones, genders/classes, articles, irregular forms—all inessential to human communication. My favorite are the “evidential markers”—languages in which you, grammatically, cannot relay a fact without including information on how you learned it! Contrary to stereotype, “simple” hunter-gatherers often speak incredibly intricate languages, while languages with a long history of being learned by outside adults have often been simplified somewhat. The effect of writing: Writing “freezes” a language in place, slowing down the changes that happen in a strictly oral language. Hence, why English-speakers today can still (mostly) understand Shakespeare, while he probably wouldn’t have understood the English of 500 years before at all, and some languages have even changed their grammar dramatically within a single human lifetime. Writing also leads to “rules” of language, which from a linguistics perspective are arbitrary, even though it’s hard to strip away our preconceptions about “better” ways to speak. For instance, for all the decades of English teachers insisting that double negatives are mathematically illogical, most languages use them—including Old English itself; even in the London dialect from which our standard developed, they were optional. Language death and revitalization: Most of the world’s 6000 languages are expected to die out in the 21st century, and even the distant past is full of language death. Some languages have died due to active campaigns against them (the U.S.’s boarding school campaign to force “the Indian” out of native children; France’s zealous stamping-out of local dialects), and others because their speakers perceive more widely-spoken languages as conducive to better opportunities. As languages die, they tend to become atrophied: dying languages are usually not much written, and their speakers have fewer and fewer other people to communicate with in the language. Language preservation and revival is complicated by many practical and social factors, and Hebrew is the only wild success story so far, under fairly unique circumstances. I’ve only covered the tip of the iceberg here, and unlike my vague summary, McWhorter’s writing includes lots of great examples! The book feels like a college course unto itself, while also very readable and quite a reasonable length (the actual text of my paperback is only 303 pages). I have to chuckle a bit at the folks who didn’t like seeing examples from other languages—yes, it’s a book about language, and it includes examples from many! These are richer if you’ve studied other languages in the past, but that’s not necessary to understand the book. I do have a couple of criticisms. One, I found the evidence McWhorter offers for all of the world’s languages descending from a single source to be not particularly convincing. This isn’t a large part of the book, but he does make frequent reference to all languages as “descendants of the first language,” etc., while also pointing out in the epilogue that after 150,000 years of language change, it’s impossible to reconstruct any words in such a language. Two, he spends rather a lot of words on digressions and personal asides, comparing aspects of linguistics to biological evolution and also making reference to comics, sitcoms, musicals, his cat, his dad’s killer Monopoly strategy, etc. It’s the sort of thing that would liven up a professor’s lectures in person, but it feels slightly overdone in book form (especially without sharing his now-20-years-old pop culture interests), and the jump from formal writing to personal aside can be a little jarring. All that said, I learned so much from this book that I would absolutely recommend it—it’s one of those books I expect to shape my understanding of the topic going forward. A great choice for those interested in how languages work, how they came to be, and why they are cool!

  5. 4 out of 5

    Georg

    I have rarely been that delighted and flattered by a book. McWorther points out that there is only a fluent and gradual distinction between different languages on the one hand and different dialects on the other hand. For instance he proves that the differences between several German dialects are much more substantial than those between Russian/Ukrainian, Spanish/Portuguese or Danish/Swedish/Norwegian. Since I speak at least four German dialects (Kölsch, Hessian, Platt and Hamburgian) in his vie I have rarely been that delighted and flattered by a book. McWorther points out that there is only a fluent and gradual distinction between different languages on the one hand and different dialects on the other hand. For instance he proves that the differences between several German dialects are much more substantial than those between Russian/Ukrainian, Spanish/Portuguese or Danish/Swedish/Norwegian. Since I speak at least four German dialects (Kölsch, Hessian, Platt and Hamburgian) in his view I can legally claim to speak at least 5 languages. Didn’t know I was that smart. Q: What is the different between an American/British work of non-fiction and a European one? A: For the latter you don’t need to know all the current TV shows. Have you ever noticed how often Anglo-Americans use metaphors and parallels from their daily TV-program? Who or what the hell is „Honeymooners“, „Dyck van Dyke“, „The Simpsons“ „East-Enders“, „ER“ or some guy called Lettermann? I don’t know and I am sure I don’t want to know either. First: This makes the books less readable for foreigners and later generations. But second (and worse): It’s a sign for the Anglo-American arrogance and self-centered attitude. They really think their TV-program is shown (and watched) all over the world. No European writer would think that their TV-program was known outside their country (which is mostly correct, or what’s the most successful TV-show in a) France, b) Austria and c) Bosnia-Herzegowina? Thought so.) The book is most rewarding if you know the basics of French, Latin and/or German because McWorther mostly discusses the development of languages and their relationship to the old and current English on the base of these languages. Less interesting are his linguistic examples from other, mostly exotic tongues and dialects. In my opinion it is not really striking that in Xxotlepolte (spoken only in my imagination) the plural of q’antyiizzofd isn’t q’antyiizzofdü but q’antyiizzofdä. What I liked is his “tolerant” approach. He shows that there is no “bad” and “good” English but that it’s only kind of coincidence that the codified (written) English appears as the only “right” (and good) English. For instance he proves that the prohibition of the double negation (“You ain’t seen nothing yet”) has nothing to do with logic (see page 228) but only with an illogical parallel to Latin. He points out that the double negation doesn’t necessarily lead to an affirmative, but can also lead to an emphatic negation. In this connection I found one of his (rare) mistakes: To prove that double negation also exists in French he explains: “… while the French apparently following the old dictum that “Fifty million Frenchmen can’t be wrong” can declare that “Ce qui n’est pas clair n’est pas français” (What isn’t clear isn’t French) by actually using an “illogical” double negative twice…” Not true. This is not a double negation but an algorithm with two negative values like “if you don’t tidy up your room you are not allowed to watch TV”.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Rose

    Fascinating. I would recommend this to anyone with an interest in language and linguistics. Reading this book makes me very glad that I do not live in a world where I would be likely to emigrate from an English-speaking country to one where I needed to learn Cree or Fula to get by. In some of those languages, children don't achieve the basic level of oral linguistic competence we expect of 5-year-olds until the age of around 10, simply because the language is so complicated and requires so many i Fascinating. I would recommend this to anyone with an interest in language and linguistics. Reading this book makes me very glad that I do not live in a world where I would be likely to emigrate from an English-speaking country to one where I needed to learn Cree or Fula to get by. In some of those languages, children don't achieve the basic level of oral linguistic competence we expect of 5-year-olds until the age of around 10, simply because the language is so complicated and requires so many individual cases to be memorised, as opposed to having rules that cover the majority of words. Not to mention the verbs common in some societies with a clear social hierarchy such as Japan and Korea, where you can't accurately use the same verb to talk about eating something with a peer as for eating with a superior or inferior of various levels. (Interestingly, the caste system of India doesn't appear to have given rise to the same phenomenon. This aspect of grammar tends to be one that immigrant children, or children of immigrants, find very difficult to learn in their ancestral language if they are living in a less rigidly-ordered society.) Some sample nuggets of interesting information: The language Jingulu (from central Australia) only uses three verbs - come, go, and do - combined with nouns to give equivalents to English verbs (e.g. "do a sleep", "go a dive"). Fula (an incredibly complex West African language) has sixteen grammatical "genders", including one gender for diminutive versions of things ("small boy" has a different gender to "boy") and one that translates most accurately as conveying a "shitty little" version of something. In some languages, such as Ngan'gityemerri, it is grammatically obligatory to use prefixes to express how something was done - you cannot just say "I chopped the wood", you have to say "I chopped the wood with an axe." In other languages, including many indigenous Amazonian languages, you must specify how you know anything that you state. You can't say "It's raining" - that would be like saying "I go car" in English - you must say "It's raining, so I hear/see/feel/my friend said...".

  7. 4 out of 5

    Elisabeth

    Read this for class but I really enjoyed it! If you're interested in how language developed throughout the world, I highly recommend this book :) Read this for class but I really enjoyed it! If you're interested in how language developed throughout the world, I highly recommend this book :)

  8. 5 out of 5

    Tim Martin

    Very well written popular science book on linguistics, never got too technical and was always interesting. The author did an excellent job of explaining things with just the right amount of humor and pop culture references while still being scholarly but not dry. In a nutshell, the author’s purpose in writing this book is to show the “process by which one original language has developed into six thousand” languages, the story “incorporating not only findings from linguistic theory but also geogr Very well written popular science book on linguistics, never got too technical and was always interesting. The author did an excellent job of explaining things with just the right amount of humor and pop culture references while still being scholarly but not dry. In a nutshell, the author’s purpose in writing this book is to show the “process by which one original language has developed into six thousand” languages, the story “incorporating not only findings from linguistic theory but also geography, history, and sociology.” Basically if you want to understand why language changes at all, even in our lifetimes, the author has written a very readable book with a lot to say on the subject. The book is divided into an introduction, seven numbered chapters, and an epilogue. The introduction lays out the purpose of the book, the author discussing the fundamentally very changeable and constantly changing nature of language, that language has an “inherently transitory nature” (comparing it to a cloud, always changing though not with any intent or purpose, but often quite randomly; the author later likens language change as watching blobs in a lava lamp form and split apart). Chapter 1 laid out the five principal forces at work in language change; sound change (“there is a strong tendency for sounds to erode and disappear over time, especially when the accent does not fall upon them” as well as “a general instability in vowels – in all languages, they tend to gradually mutate into different ones as time goes by”), extension (“a tendency for some-time patterns in a grammar to generalize into exceptionless across-the-board rules,” such as how in English adding an s to form the plural of words became the norm instead of such examples of mouse/mice), the evolution of concrete words into pieces of grammar (“all languages constantly create expressive usages of words or phrases that gradually wear down in force, like old jokes”), rebracketing (the process where one word can be created out of two or more basically, such as how Sant Heer Niclaes evolved into Santerclaes and then Santa Claus), and semantic change (essentially how words can come to have broader meanings, narrower meanings, or its meaning can seem to simply drift aimlessly). McWhorter stressed towards the end of the chapter that cultural elements often have a very limited role in language change, that changes to language are more often owed to factors “stemming from the inherent randomness of general language change,” and that traits inherent to certain languages may have no relation whatsoever to culture (such as the German, Japanese, Hindi, Amharic in Ethiopia, and Mongolian tendency to place verbs at the end of the sentence is well known, but it “would be hard to identify what “cultural” factors all these people could have in common from Tokyo to the Gobi Desert to Addis Ababa to Berlin that would explain this similarity”). Chapter 2 was a fascinating chapter, really driving home the point that there is no language “surrounded by variations called dialects,” but that “dialects is all there is.” To me this chapter was worth the price of admission so to speak (though it was not the central thrust of the book), but really opened my eyes to the fact that no dialect is really decayed, rotten, or decadent, there isn’t really bad grammar in a dialect, but what becomes standard is one dialect picked from several, perhaps many, the dialect spoken by the elite and by those who print books. I could write for a while how good this chapter is, with excellent examples of politics’ role in defining languages and dialects (such as with French, Provencal, and Occitan, and with Russian, Belorussian, and Ukrainian) and a great discussion of how the differences between languages often isn’t sharp but can vary along a continuum, a dialect continuum, that can show when say someone analyzes various separate “languages,” that for instance “Standard Serbo-Croatian and Bulgarian are as different as Spanish and Italian but are linked by a procession of dialects – and even a whole “language” – falling on a continuum linking them in a kind of living exhibit of one morphing into another in space just as languages morph into one another in time.” Chapter 3 continued the dialect continuum concept and notes the existence of Sprachbunds, of how languages that exist in a given region, even if unrelated (such as say the Romance language Romanian and the Slavic language Bulgarian) can influence one another in the case where languages end up “sharing the same mouths,” that regions where people are bilingual or multilingual often import linguistic traits from one language into other languages (such as how Romanian speakers of Bulgarian have imported articles, something other Slavic languages lack). Sprachbunds can be huge, such as the European Sprachbund; even though the languages of Europe belong to different families they have “commonalities [that] have risen through geographical proximity rather than family relationships.” Chapter 4 was a fascinating discussion of pidgins and creoles, how they arise, what constitutes a pidgin and a creole, and again like with dialect continuums and Sprachbunds, “the extent to which a language is pidginized before it becomes a full language again is a matter of degree rather than stark metrical distinctions.” In addition to pidgins and creoles there are also semicreoles, with overall the chapter filled with many fascinating examples the world over of all three types. Chapter 5 was a discussion of something I never knew about, that the world’s languages all to one degree or another have a “benign overgrowth,” a sort of “linguistic sludge” that over time any language accumulates that while necessary to speak that language, on the whole strictly speaking isn’t essential for a language to have. Examples include things like gender marking of inanimate objects and concepts (“there are few better examples than Fula of West Africa of how astoundingly baroque, arbitrary, and utterly useless in communication a language’s grammar can become” than the sixteen “genders” of Fula), evidential markers (the source of information about an action, such as hearsay versus direct observation, requiring special markers grammatically), and the existence of definite and indefinite articles (“All languages have some way of distinguishing the definite from the indefinite, but most do not do so overtly as consistently as English”: “Russian, for instance, has no articles at all”). Chapter 6 discussed why the rate in change of languages has slowed down a lot, largely having to do with the advent of widespread acceptance of a standard dialect and widespread literacy, with the author discussing at length how writing itself can arrest language change (or greatly slow it down); “writing is a slow, conscious, controlled endeavor, of a sort that lends itself to conservatism: the ingraining of habits and in-house customs simply because that’s the way it was done before.” Also an interesting discussion of how spoken language may have been influenced by writing (for instance subordinate clauses seems to be largely arising from conventions of written languages, that “heavy use of relative and subordinate clauses is largely an artificial decoration on “natural” human speech, which largely uses them sparingly”), though McWhorter is quick to point out that languages that are primarily spoken are by no means “backward” and can and do clearly contain wit and art and be enormously complex. Chapter 7 was a necessary, well-written, and sad chapter on how and why languages die, with most of the reason for language death from dominant culture interference, whether overt and intentional (actively suppressing indigenous and minority languages through laws and education policies) or by subtle means perhaps and unintentional (such as people perceiving greater economic and social advantages by speaking the language of the dominant culture, a “coolness factor” with the minority language only seen as spoken by parents or grandparents, and the fact kids tend to pick up the majority language in a culture and that even if parents go to very great pains to keep kids fluent in a language, the chance that their kids will do the same - of two people getting together raised the same way, speaking the same language - is rather small). Also an interesting discussion of how a language over time can become a pidgin of its former self as it dies due to such factors as atrophying vocabulary and genericization of the language (“Just as pidgins strip away aspects of languages not necessary to basic communication, dying languages are marked by a tendency to let drop many of the accreted “frills” languages drift into developing through time”). Also a good and balanced discussion of the feasibility of preserving of so many of the world’s minority languages as living, spoken tongues and even the ethics of doing so. The epilogue had a fascinating commentary on the likelihood that linguists have constructed a first language, a mother tongue, using analysis of words and grammar from all the world’s languages (the author doesn’t believe it is possible and goes into great detail as to why this isn’t possible). He does admit though we can make a lot of educated guesses as to what the first language would be like based on what we know of linguistic change through time, such as for instance that the first language would not have inflections (“Inflections almost always begin as free words; even in the cases where they do not, they arise through sound erosion and change”) and would lack such “bells and whistles” as evidential makers and indefinite and definite articles. In the end, the world’s first language was probably a lot like a creole, that it “not had much time to meander into areas decorative to the needs of human communication.” A really good read, it closes with notes and a thorough index.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Anthony

    A good book is thought-provoking in such a way that it promotes the reader to extend the author’s argument outside the confines of the author’s subject. John McWhorter’s The Power of Babel fits precisely into this definition of a good book. McWhorter’s main argument is that languages have been in a constant evolutionary flux since the first humans began speaking approximately 150,000 years ago. Using the analogy of evolution, McWhorter demonstrates how the diversity of spoken languages have deve A good book is thought-provoking in such a way that it promotes the reader to extend the author’s argument outside the confines of the author’s subject. John McWhorter’s The Power of Babel fits precisely into this definition of a good book. McWhorter’s main argument is that languages have been in a constant evolutionary flux since the first humans began speaking approximately 150,000 years ago. Using the analogy of evolution, McWhorter demonstrates how the diversity of spoken languages have developed, grown, mutated, and cross-polinated within each other across the distinct niches of cultural and geographical distribution. Often looked down upon by academic or learned orators, the dialects, pidgins, and creoles that sound low-brow are actually the hallmarks of the continuous development of a mutually distinct language. Following the analogy of evolution, McWhorter provides a compelling argument that explains how languages become extinct victims through the passage of time: these dead unspoken languages are casualties to the global agriculturalization, colonization and commercialization that has been spreading across the globe for the past 10-11,000 years. Currently there are approximately 6,000 languages spoken on this planet, however 99% of the worlds population speaks 1 of only 20 languages and the remaining 1% of the global population speaks the remaining 5,980 languages. However, as more and more of the world’s rural and undeveloped peoples become encroached upon by humanity’s never ending thirst for resources and expansion, the younger generations of rural peoples lose the historical identify of their ancestor’s language as they choose to speak the languages of economy, power and survival. In true linguistic style, McWhorter provides a myriad of examples displaying the transitive nature of language to support his theories. Some of these examples such as the revelation that the phrase “bye” to indicate a farewell salutation originated from the phrase “God be with you,” which morphed to “goodbye” and then eventually just “bye.” The drawback to the The Power of Babel is that although interesting at times (as noted above) McWhorter uses far too many examples to drive his point home and I found myself glossing over 95% of the non-English examples he uses. However, the end effect is informative and this reader was able to appreciate the ideas behind McWhorter’s arguments without fretting over the minutiae of the linguistic details. Now, getting back to my opening statement: this is a good book because in reading I found myself reflecting on language as identity. As a 21st century English-centric American I have been spoon-fed the subjective philosophy that this country is united through its one language and my own familial lineage prides itself on assimilating towards English as the primary language. I have some regrets that I speak not one word of the German that my mother grew up hearing her parents converse with her grandparents, yet the loss of this cultural connection was considered in her family as a necessary sacrifice. This story is hardly unique and neither is the seemingly American attitude that a single language is required to unify the people. Throughout history every nation has effortlessly struggled to preserve what is the “true” language of the people but the truth is that there is no true language. Language is in constant flux. Consider that Portuguese and Spanish, both distinct languages can be considered separate dialects of a much older Latin. The dialects of today can become the language of tomorrow and since language is essential in communicating who we are to each other – the essence of that communication and the essence of the identity of ourselves is and always has been changing.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Trice

    I picked this book up with a very different impression of what it would contain - I really was hoping for some sweeping historical tale of language spread and change. I have discovered that it actually takes the reader through an exploration of why and how languages change. This is helpful as well, and once I adjusted my expectations I found it interesting and informative. A lot of this is stuff I heard in college linguistics classes, though a good review, and told in an engaging way. It also ha I picked this book up with a very different impression of what it would contain - I really was hoping for some sweeping historical tale of language spread and change. I have discovered that it actually takes the reader through an exploration of why and how languages change. This is helpful as well, and once I adjusted my expectations I found it interesting and informative. A lot of this is stuff I heard in college linguistics classes, though a good review, and told in an engaging way. It also has some great and varied examples and an interesting exploration of creoles (yes, plural! of which I was basically ignorant) that is the focus of one chapter and then pops up in smatterings of analysis elsewhere. The one real issue I have is that, in trying to be sure that everyone is understanding his points about language change, McWhorter goes into long and rather detailed analogies that end up straying far from the central point. Many of these are interesting thoughts on culture and cultural change themselves, but often seem rather unrelated and unnecessary to his subject. Some quotes and interesting tidbits: Out of all of the words in the Oxford English Dictionary, however, no less than ninety-nine percent were taken from other languages. The relative few that trace back to Old English itself are also sixty-two percent of the words most used. Therefore authentically English roots, such as and, but, father, love, fight, to, will, should, not, and from, are central to speaking English. Yet the vast majority of our vocabulary originated in foreign languages, including not merely the obvious "Latinate" items like adjacent and expedite, but common, mundane forms not processed by us as "continental" in the slightest. (95) so, I knew it was a lot, but that much? Wow! and speaking of linguistic importing... [A]n English that had developed without these lexical invasions would be incomprehensible and peculiar to us. The Beautiful People would be Scīene Lēode rather than the French words we use today; conscience would be inwit [love this one!!!] "knowledge within"; a succession would be an æftergengness, an "aftergoing." There is something comforting in the idea of our having words like inwit and æftergengness - as English speakers, we have gotten used to a great many of our compound words being essentially opaque, such that we have to learn them by rote, but wouldn't it be nice if most of our "big words" made at least some immediate sense to us because they were composed of roots drawn from the ordinary level of the language? (96) I think 'inwit' is my favorite - do you think we could bring it into use intentionally? Or as my linguistics prof often mourned, even if adopted, is it fated, like so many English-base words, to be relegated to the scorned portion of the English language. [For help in typing letters/linguistic symbols not available on the usual keyboard, go here or here]

  11. 5 out of 5

    Joseph

    This is a great book for non-linguists interested in language and how tens of thousands of dialects have developed and transformed throughout human history. McWhorter does a great job of making concepts about language palpable for everyday people and clearing up common misconceptions that drive us linguists c.r.a.z.y., such as the myth of "primitive" languages and the related prescriptive nonsense people constantly try to graft onto language. As a linguist, I found several of McWhorter's ideas t This is a great book for non-linguists interested in language and how tens of thousands of dialects have developed and transformed throughout human history. McWhorter does a great job of making concepts about language palpable for everyday people and clearing up common misconceptions that drive us linguists c.r.a.z.y., such as the myth of "primitive" languages and the related prescriptive nonsense people constantly try to graft onto language. As a linguist, I found several of McWhorter's ideas thought-provoking, and reading this book has definitely made me look at language in a new light. For example, the concept of there being no "languages", but rather a dialectal continuum fraught with languagecest galore (everything from Malagasy to Spanglish). Our human tendency to (often wrongly) categorize every phenomenon we encounter does extend to language, a fact that's easy even for us linguists to forget. McWhorter definitely blew my mind when he extended this to pidgins and creoles, explaining that even these are a continuum and not discrete categories. However, I found some things really annoying. One, he totally overdoes it on the analogies and the stories from his personal experience (in my opinion). More importantly, he hits the ground running with the assumption of a single, first language 150,000 years ago without mentioning that this is extremely problematic. All of the sudden some group just busted out a full-fledged language without anything significant coming before it? The reality was undoubtedly a lot more complex than we are ever going to find out, and having that assumption as an unquestioned basis for this book is ridiculous. It follows that the hypothesis of creoles being structurally "closer" to the "first" language is rather laughable. So don't speculate without acknowledging the incredible problematic nature of the entire discussion in the first place.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Nicky

    It’s been a little too long since I read this to write a detailed review, but on the whole I found it readable and interesting. At times it began to feel belaboured in terms of the examples given and the detail gone into, though of course, I’ve also read various other books about linguistics and so I had some grounding in what I was reading already. For the most part, McWhorter avoids being prescriptive about language and tracks change in language as how language works — which you’d expect, or h It’s been a little too long since I read this to write a detailed review, but on the whole I found it readable and interesting. At times it began to feel belaboured in terms of the examples given and the detail gone into, though of course, I’ve also read various other books about linguistics and so I had some grounding in what I was reading already. For the most part, McWhorter avoids being prescriptive about language and tracks change in language as how language works — which you’d expect, or hope for at least, in a linguist, but it isn’t always the case. There’s some interesting stuff particularly on creoles and pidgins, which somewhat debunks the idea that a pidgin becomes a creole through children speaking it, etc. Not that there’s no truth to it, but McWhorter complicates the picture a little. Reviewed for The Bibliophibian.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Paul Perry

    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 or 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.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Sara G

    I love John McWhorter's funny, accessible writing about linguistics. This book talks about the 6,000 world languages and focuses especially on how they evolve, including why writing has actually kept our languages from changing much over the past centuries. I laughed out loud in several spots and I actually learned a lot - including a new Russian/English swear word that I love! I love John McWhorter's funny, accessible writing about linguistics. This book talks about the 6,000 world languages and focuses especially on how they evolve, including why writing has actually kept our languages from changing much over the past centuries. I laughed out loud in several spots and I actually learned a lot - including a new Russian/English swear word that I love!

  15. 4 out of 5

    Nathan

    Top quote: “In Greenlandic Eskimo, ‘I should stop drinking’ is Iminngernaveersaartunngortussaavunga.” Starting a petition now for English to get cool words like that.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Helio

    There was only room for 1/2 my review Page 8 McWhorter makes the claim that one mutation accounts for the ability to speak language. Humans vary from apes (chimpanzees) by having 7% difference in genes – we have 6% they don’t they have 1% we don’t (don’t buy into that business of DNA being 99% the same because it takes into account “so-called” junk DNA which makes up most of the DNA strand for integrity of the molecule – it is like saying all houses are 99% the same when you take into account the There was only room for 1/2 my review Page 8 McWhorter makes the claim that one mutation accounts for the ability to speak language. Humans vary from apes (chimpanzees) by having 7% difference in genes – we have 6% they don’t they have 1% we don’t (don’t buy into that business of DNA being 99% the same because it takes into account “so-called” junk DNA which makes up most of the DNA strand for integrity of the molecule – it is like saying all houses are 99% the same when you take into account the atmosphere above and the ground below). Humans have about 20,000 genes. 6% of 20,000 is 1,200 genes that we have that from apes do not. Half of those differences have to do with speech. Genes are anywhere from 100 to 100,000 base pairs (bp) long – let’s say 200 on average. That means 600 (half of 1,200) x 200 bp = 120,000 mutations (changes) needed to occur before Homo sapiens were capable of speech – a far cry from one. Interesting facts (with some commentary): Page 20 some languages, like Japanese, don’t use pronouns Latin didn’t need pronouns because endings told them what person and number was intended; erosion of words shaved off the case endings P23 Latin’s different endings (for different categories of nouns) reduced to the ‘s’ ending in French. This occurred in English as well where the plural of fox was “foxas”; tunge (tongue) was tungan, boc (book) was “bec” and plural of waeter (water) was the same. The variety in endings wore off one by one until we have just a few unusual leftovers such as oxen, mice and brethren. P25 Latin, like many languages (Russian, Chinese) did not have definite articles. It is interesting how all the Romance languages developed them (separately it seems) and whereas French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese have the article at the beginning of the word, in Romanian it is at the end (page 106) (wish I had realized that while in Bucharest last year). The author explains how this occurred in French but not in the other romance languages. P25-27 goes over how the double negation occurred in French. At first just the “ne” was used (for not) and sentences became reinforced by adding something in essence meaning “not one bit”. It was different for different verbs (not one crumb for food, not one drop for drink, not one step for walk…) As time passed the expressions lost their snap (as McWhorter states) and the double stuff expressions fell out of use. However the double negative attachment “pas” for “marche” (to walk) hung around and was picked up to go with the other verbs as well. Later on the author notes that they no longer use the “ne” in spoken French (further transformation). This common process of language change, a word with concrete meaning became a function to express an aspect of grammar is known as “grammaticalization”. P 32 Silly (spelled cely) started out as meaning sanctified by God became to mean “innocent” then “deserving of compassion” then “weak” then “simple” to “ignorant” to “foolish” (and perhaps now as ‘funny’). P33 There are five processes of change: sound, extension, words into grammar, rebracketing and semantic change that continually interacts with one another. These are not clearly delineated in the book. P39 Latin case endings dropped away slowly with time (as position in a sentence became important). In Latin word order was not important but became so as declinations diminished. Some languages had SVO word orders, some had Verbs first and then German went with Verbs last – this wasn’t really explored in the book. P41 Goodbye in English derived from the expression “God be with you” > God b’wy was an intermediate usage. P41 The plural of goose being geese came about because the original word for goose was “gos” and it was pluralized by adding an “I” to yield gosi. Through time, speakers altered sounds to be more compatible, for ease of pronunciation*. The author provides details of the conversion, having to do with eroding unaccented final vowels *for instance impossibilis used to be inpossibilis P48 African protolanguage “Jingulu” shed all its verbs except for come, go and do. To express an action one had to combine one of these verbs with a noun (e.g. you go {for} a dive; you do a sleep). P49 The French verb “sortir” occupies a semantic space that overlaps with, but does not coincide with, English “to leave” P49 Like Pinker, McWhorter denies Eskimos having many words for snow, pointing out we have snow, sleet, slush and blizzard missing out powder, crusty and wet snow (suitable for building forts). P50 Japanese and Javanese have hierarchical languages depending who you are talking to (high and low are different) P50-51 the author touches on languages of the San without noting that there are four major click languages, that are as different from one another as Portuguese is from Chinese and none of them use all the clicks; they each use a different grouping of clicks. He states the clicks just crept in unconnected to anything whereas it may have been more likely they were there originally as something in addition to vowels and consonants. It may be have been clicks fell out of use in other languages is one cannot shout a click which might be important in larger noisy groups settings (markets for instance) and didn’t need to being in small bands wanting to maintain a low quiet (for hunting) environment. P51 Placing verbs at the end of sentences (like German) is commonplace in other world languages like Japanese, Hindi, Mongolian, Mandinka, Nama (in Namibia) etc. As I recall from my study of Nharo (a Central Kalahari language) the verb came first, like in Arabic. It also has a dual function for pronouns like Arabic but I can’t remember if the adjectives had endings for lining up with subject, direct object and indirect object (like Arabic). P68 The difference between Moldovan and Romanian is no more different than American English to British English. P69 As we suspected, Swedish, Norwegian and Danish are variants of the same language. McWhorter says they are closer to one another than Standard German is to Schwabisch or Standard Italian is to Milanese. My grandfather, who was from southern Italy, had trouble understanding Italians from northern Italy, so the difference may be more relevant than the author makes out. P69 Hindi and Urdu are two dialects of the same language. P92 the author uses analogies of dinosaur differences to language differences and give a shout out to the Brontosaurus (as did Gould) instead of calling it an Apatosaurus. Now if we could only get Pluto grandfathered in as a planet. P96 English lost most of its original vocabulary through three lexical “earthquakes” a) the Vikings invading the northern half of Britain starting AD 787 injecting about a thousand words into English (examples: both, same, again, get, give, are, skirt, skin and sky); b) In 1066 the Normans (French speaking Vikings) took over England introducing 10,000 words of which 7,500 stuck (such as: air, coast, debt, face, flower, joy, people, river, sign, blue, clear easy, large, mean, nice…); c) the Latinate layer (presumably from the Roman occupation near the beginning of the first millennium) came apart after the French withdrawal. Later on (P219-220) McWhorter points out that English changed more between AD1000 to AD1500 than it did AD1500 to AD2000. That may not be a fair comparison given the thousands of words that were injected after 1066 and there being no comparable infusion after 1500. Seems to me, as supported throughout the book, change comes from interaction with other languages. My notion doesn’t hold up given how Polynesian Languages from Samoa, Hawaii and New Zealand have become mutually unintelligible after just centuries of separation (in isolation). Quebec French changed little after the Battle of Plains of Abraham while Parisian French modified greatly. So a comparison of English for AD1250 -1500 to AD 1500-1750 and AD 1750-2000 may be more telling as to the nature of language change (maybe even in 100 year increments). McWhorter concedes, later on, that once languages became standardized (in part through printing) the changes were not as great in the later centuries. P102 The spread of Islam lead to massive amounts of Arabic into Persian, Turkish and Urdu. The Chinese occupied Vietnam for a thousand years resulting in 30% of Vietnamese being Chinese. That doesn’t seem like a lot of influence for a thousand years of occupation. I wish the author had put comparisons in absolute numbers like he did for Normans inputting 10,000 words into English or had put that in terms of percentages. Given some (many?) languages only have vocabularies of 7,000 words, (as McWhoter mentions later on) 10,000 could be a large percentage – the author did not give a way to compare Norman influence of 200 years to China’s influence of 1,000 years. P102 Australia has 260 languages and because of small size of bands and intermarriages between groups as much as fifty percent of vocabularies are borrowed. Citing other examples (e.g. P114 Russians with Alaskan Aleut) the changes seem to be mostly vocabulary of the males making its way into the grammar of the female/mother thus supporting the contention that grammar may be more resilient to change and thus a better indicator for tracing language change (rather than looking at words/morphemes) – that is if groups use the same grammar (but not so much the vocabulary) they may have common origins. Much of the book is about how language disassembles and not so much on how it became intricate and elegant in the first place. McWhorter does suggest that declinations came about from attaching words to nouns that got shortened into inflections (two words became one). He also allocates a lot of the book to Creole languages and their formations. Hebrew is the only language that managed to come back from near extinction due to the formation of Israel. He doesn’t give other language revivals much of a chance at gaining their relevance and intricacies. P105 Yiddish would be deemed a variety of German if it were not for it being affiliated with the Jewish faith. P106 Romanian developed articles at the end of nouns because that is how its neighbouring languages had theirs (Albanian). P107 Bulgarians adopted the articles after the noun format because the Romanians, Albanians and Greek had them. The other Slavic languages don’t have them and incorporating articles is one of the last things accomplished when learning English. (As McWhorter points out lack of use of articles is what gives Boris and Natasha away as spies in “Rocky and Bullwinkle”.) P112 Another example of incorporating nouns (French) into Cree grammar (to yield Michif) is given. McWhorter also states that Cree is very difficult to learn (P200 and also on page 284). Those North American indigenous languages are not really acquired until age ten for native learners. I couldn’t find a reference for that and have my doubts as to its validity. First off I studied Cree and found it the easiest to learn of the Amerindian languages. I also studied Blackfoot, Nuu chal nulth (Nootka), Sm’algyax (Tsimshian) and Tsuut’ina (Sarsi) and even took a graduate level North American Linguistics course and at no time did any of the instructors say natives could not master their languages until age ten. There was acknowledgement that the Na-Dene languages (e.g. Sarsi, Navajo) were extra difficult for English speakers but nothing about them being a challenge to master from birth. Keep in mind we get fine-tuned English through courses all through our school years. And even today how many of us remember what a subjunctive is? My Arabic Instructor did say it would take us seven years before we could master Arabic, but after six years of high school French all I could do was read cereal boxes, so being able to speak Arabic in seven seemed a bonus. P113 Quecha, like Latin, has endings that show the function of a noun in a sentence. Quecha is also one of many languages that the direct object comes first. Although McWhorter shows disdain for what I call the richness and elegance of other languages he seems to miss the clarification significance such features have. He deems them unnecessary which strikes me as English- conceitedness or having AmericanCentric viewpoints. For instance of P114 he explains the use of the “verb change into” feature where some languages distinguish between changing oneself or changing something else when English doesn’t. Because not having it in English lacks clarity there is potential for confusion and jokes (What did it change from?). I prefer having the clarification option and McWhorter goes for keeping it simple (let the context sort it out). French and German have the “self” marker for one changes oneself and Maori use a prefix for when the change is to something else. So there are the “changes itself” languages and the “make it change” languages that distinguish whereas English has neither. P125 Another example is how languages mark subjects when the topic has to do with experience rather than action. English generally doesn’t have it (with exceptions of verbs like rise/raise or sit/seat). The example McWhorter uses is the Spanish “Me gustan los libros” for (reading) books pleases me. It is the interaction with the books that pleases one. In English “I like books” is generally taken to mean “I like reading books” but could mean one likes books as paperweights or their look in a bookshelf – there is no specification for interacting that other languages provide for. P126 Another example is “He is cold”. Generally in English it means he feels cold, but it could mean he is a cold person. In Spanish and other languages (Russia “it is cold to me”) it is clearer in that a person says “Tenes frio” he has the feel of cold. P127 Provides a further example in Hindi distinguishing meeting someone by accident or intentionally. In English saying “I met someone” does not provide the additional information. Whereas in Hindi you specify through the inclusion of the “to-me” provision. P180 McWhorter gives examples of “evidential markers” – including how you know some information. The Tuyuca language of the Amazon has four: if you hear it, if you see it, if you are told it (heresay) or if you suppose it, marked by types of endings (gi, i, yigi, & hoi respectively). Makah, of the Pacific Northwest, has three: looks like, hear and from what they tell me, also marked by endings (pid, qad’I & wad respectively). I think these distinctions are great and precludes having to ask “How do you know?” or “How did you learn that?” McWhorter seems to think they are unnecessary. It would be like not having to include citations in one’s essays. Interestingly enough the author does not use citations by sentence (as most books do – i.e. with a little number) but does include a list by page number at the end of the book. Yo

  17. 5 out of 5

    Nancy Mills

    My new favorite author. John McWhorter looks at language from a whole new angle. Languages are never static; by the time the rules are established by the "authorities," the language has changed. The Old English of Beowulf is pretty much incomprehensible to us now; English speakers typically think it is more like German. Since those days English has interbred with Latin, Viking tongues, and French (Normans) ... which results in a colorful language with confounding rules and spellings pulled out o My new favorite author. John McWhorter looks at language from a whole new angle. Languages are never static; by the time the rules are established by the "authorities," the language has changed. The Old English of Beowulf is pretty much incomprehensible to us now; English speakers typically think it is more like German. Since those days English has interbred with Latin, Viking tongues, and French (Normans) ... which results in a colorful language with confounding rules and spellings pulled out of various hats.... makes me a little less critical of the ridiculous way some words are spelled and why the plural of mouse is "mice" but the plural of house is not "hice." Turns out the French are even lazier speakers than the English, dropping the final sounds off words (and even whole words out of phases) right and left, while retaining the original spellings and, in the written language, the entire phrase. McWhorter, in a fun way, not only excuses but welcomes the evolution of languages, and explains the logic in some common rule-breaking. ("I didn't see nothing" reeks of ignorance in English, while double negatives are the rule in more languages than not.). And why do we say "He isn't" and "he's not," "you aren't" and "you're not" but can't say "I amn't" for "I'm not?" (I generally get around that one by defiantly saying "I ain't," not sure what McWhorter would say about that one.). McWhorter also follows the interesting evolution of pidgin languages which just express basic and necessary ideas, to creoles which are languages in their own right, with their own grammars, etc. Amazingly, this only takes about a generation to occur. Lots of information, easy to digest because the writing is straightforward and sparkles with wit. Delightful!

  18. 4 out of 5

    Jesse

    I question McWhorter's philosophical assumption that it is good that languages change. He says, "We are utilizing a system that is eternally mutating, in a slow but inexorable process of becoming a new system entirely" (p 13). He doesn't give a defense that change is good. He just assumes it (I think this comes from his evolutionary model of history). I recognize that this book is not written as a defense but more as a description of language's history but I still think he should have defended h I question McWhorter's philosophical assumption that it is good that languages change. He says, "We are utilizing a system that is eternally mutating, in a slow but inexorable process of becoming a new system entirely" (p 13). He doesn't give a defense that change is good. He just assumes it (I think this comes from his evolutionary model of history). I recognize that this book is not written as a defense but more as a description of language's history but I still think he should have defended his position more. At one point, he writes, "Sure, English changes, but for us, the English of five hundred years ago, such as that of Shakespeare, is quite recognizable as the language we still speak" (p 219). In contrast, he points out how in Shakespeare's time, he would have to study the English before his time as a separate language. This is not the case for us; we can pick up Shakespeare and read. McWhorter doesn't consider this ability a positive good for English. But I would argue that it is an incredible good that we can pick up Shakespeare today and still understand much of it quite easily. The reality is a people and culture that can read and understand cultural writings from five centuries ago is a stronger, more robust culture than others. We can read and know our cultural history better because our language has not changed as much. This is a clear counter argument to McWhorter's assumption that it is good for languages to change. While languages do change, it is much better if they do so slowly so that we can read and understand deeper into our past. The importance of maintaining clear, explicit rules of grammar is huge in preserving Shakespeare for the coming generations.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Ushan

    John McWhorter is a creologist (creolologist?), like Derek Bickerton; he has written a book specifically on how language changes. Words can drop unstressed syllables (as Latin became French, "femina" became "fam", spelled "femme"), a language can become tonal to distinguish between words that have become homonyms, words can be borrowed, meanings of words can drift. When creoles appear, grammar is crushed and completely recreated - or incompletely, which is what happened with Afrikaans. Writing a John McWhorter is a creologist (creolologist?), like Derek Bickerton; he has written a book specifically on how language changes. Words can drop unstressed syllables (as Latin became French, "femina" became "fam", spelled "femme"), a language can become tonal to distinguish between words that have become homonyms, words can be borrowed, meanings of words can drift. When creoles appear, grammar is crushed and completely recreated - or incompletely, which is what happened with Afrikaans. Writing and universal literacy can put a brake on language change, or at least slow it down significantly. A bilingual community can replace something from their native language's grammar with that from their second language, as Yiddish speakers replaced the German feminine suffix -in with the -ke of their Slavic neighbors. If young speakers of a language find it less prestigious than an outside language, they can switch to the latter, so the former dies within a few generations, becoming degraded by the end as the last remaining native speakers don't learn it properly; this is what has happened or is happening to Native American and Aboriginal Australian languages.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Hailey

    So far this book has been alright.. it has a lot of details. Some good information if you are looking to understand why language has changed and developed throughout history. Reading this book has made me think that I really need to learn another language. -Not only to gain a new perspective and understand another culture more deeply, but also to understand English more.. As many of our words have been shared from other languages. It also has made me think about my students perspective and I hav So far this book has been alright.. it has a lot of details. Some good information if you are looking to understand why language has changed and developed throughout history. Reading this book has made me think that I really need to learn another language. -Not only to gain a new perspective and understand another culture more deeply, but also to understand English more.. As many of our words have been shared from other languages. It also has made me think about my students perspective and I have gained insights that will help me teach English to my students. Must add another note, I could not read this book word-for-word because of the large amount of examples and details.. So I would recommend skimming it for the parts that really interest you.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Stephen Kelly

    I gave up on this book. I couldn't stand McWhorter's style; seemed like an old man trying to impress his young students with a bunch of pop culture allusions, but most of the references were dated and distracting. I got the impression he didn't trust the audience to be interested solely in his subject, so every few paragraphs he'd ramble about Charlie Brown or the Internet or something that really had nothing to do with linguistics. I didn't make it too far, and I have no interest in ever resumi I gave up on this book. I couldn't stand McWhorter's style; seemed like an old man trying to impress his young students with a bunch of pop culture allusions, but most of the references were dated and distracting. I got the impression he didn't trust the audience to be interested solely in his subject, so every few paragraphs he'd ramble about Charlie Brown or the Internet or something that really had nothing to do with linguistics. I didn't make it too far, and I have no interest in ever resuming.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Matt

    This book certainly has a lot going for it - it is well-researched, witty, and written in an accessible style. Unfortunately, I found it a slog to get through (and indeed, I didn't make it all that far before giving up). McWhorter presents an argument and then pounds you over the head with examples, making for a very redundant read. I guess I shouldn't be surprised - this is his basic MO on his podcast, Lexicon Valley, too, but I guess it is more tolerable in spoken than written form. This book certainly has a lot going for it - it is well-researched, witty, and written in an accessible style. Unfortunately, I found it a slog to get through (and indeed, I didn't make it all that far before giving up). McWhorter presents an argument and then pounds you over the head with examples, making for a very redundant read. I guess I shouldn't be surprised - this is his basic MO on his podcast, Lexicon Valley, too, but I guess it is more tolerable in spoken than written form.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Kelly

    This was way better than you might guess by the amount of time it took me to read it, lol. I got a burr up my you-know-what about a different topic halfway through and lost my attention span. Interesting, fun, and accessible book about the world's languages. This was way better than you might guess by the amount of time it took me to read it, lol. I got a burr up my you-know-what about a different topic halfway through and lost my attention span. Interesting, fun, and accessible book about the world's languages.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Lavinia

    The good part is that the book is pretty comprehensible, despite its scientific purpose; the bad part - not everything is interesting [to me] and there's no way I'll remember everything I want to. The good part is that the book is pretty comprehensible, despite its scientific purpose; the bad part - not everything is interesting [to me] and there's no way I'll remember everything I want to.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Iona Sharma

    A really interesting book about the history of human language. I only noticed after I read it that it was published in 2001, so it may be that parts of it have dated and I wouldn't know it (and come to think of it, the author does use words in a way that has definitely dated - "Eskimo" for "Inuit", e.g.), but that aside, it's a very informative book loosely structured around what happened to the first human language and why humans now speak about 6000 different ones. The author uses some of that A really interesting book about the history of human language. I only noticed after I read it that it was published in 2001, so it may be that parts of it have dated and I wouldn't know it (and come to think of it, the author does use words in a way that has definitely dated - "Eskimo" for "Inuit", e.g.), but that aside, it's a very informative book loosely structured around what happened to the first human language and why humans now speak about 6000 different ones. The author uses some of that time to talk about creoles, which are clearly his specialist subject, and I learned a lot about them and quite a lot of other things besides.

  26. 4 out of 5

    S.J.

    Deeply engrossing, humorous, and accessible to non-linguists. I had no idea grammar structure could be this sexy. I won’t stop thinking about this book for a while.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Masha

    I am so happy and grateful that I have a Masters in Linguistics. This book just reminded me of how amazing languages are and just how much I love linguistics.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Keith

    This is another fun language book by McWhorter. This volume is organized around looking at all the ways that languages change and evolve over time. McWhorter describes a rich variety of changes that languages and dialects can undergo. We've all heard and read about how languages can change in pronunciation over time, and how word meanings can evolve. But that is only the start of McWhorter's entertaining and informative tour through the evolution of language. Complex language features---such as i This is another fun language book by McWhorter. This volume is organized around looking at all the ways that languages change and evolve over time. McWhorter describes a rich variety of changes that languages and dialects can undergo. We've all heard and read about how languages can change in pronunciation over time, and how word meanings can evolve. But that is only the start of McWhorter's entertaining and informative tour through the evolution of language. Complex language features---such as inflection or the use of tone---come and go over time, and McWhorter provides some fascinating insights into how and why this type of change happens. He also describes a variety of other complexities that arise in the world's languages, but are generally unfamiliar to folks like me who are mostly only familiar with Romance or Indo-European languages. There is a large (and interesting) section of the book devoted to pidgins and creoles. Creoles are essentially new languages that spring into being when people who use a much simpler pidgin are compelled to rely almost exclusively on that pidgin for communication of a long period of time. The resulting Creole is a true language with a grammar and vocabulary that provide sufficient expressiveness for the full range of human communications. McWhorter argues that since Creoles are less evolved, the common features across creole languages are probably a good indication of the types of features that would have been present in the earliest human language. Another interesting aspect of the book was the contrasting of more isolated, regional languages and more wide-spread languages such as English, Hindi, Chinese, or Arabic. The truly bizarre and hard to grasp linguistic complexities are much more likely to be found in the more isolated languages, where most if not all speakers learn the language natively as children. Once a language gets big enough that many people are learning it as a second language, those rough edges get softened over time. Thus, for example, Swahili, a language adopted by many adults as a second language, is generally considered the "easiest" of the Bantu languages. There are many other interesting aspects of language evolution in this book. How do languages change when the mix with each other, whether due to migration, trade, or conquest? What happens when a language starts getting written down? How do languages change as they die out? Do we have any hope of reconstructing the original human language? The book is full of interesting examples English and other languages readers may know, such as French, German, and Russian, and from languages readers are unlikely to have heard of, such as Ngan'gityemerri, an Aborigine language from northern Australia. And McWhorter tells his story with enthusiasm and a pleasant sprinkling of personal anecdotes and asides, both relevant (such as his personal experience grappling with different German dialects) and merely entertaining (such as his musings on the quality of art in turn-of-the-century comic strips).

  29. 4 out of 5

    bup

    Language fascinates. I used to think Chinese was hard. The mind-blowing craziness of some of the 6,000 languages spoken around the globe leaves my head spinning. This should be a review, but I just want to say I enjoyed it, although sometimes this was a bit dense for reading on the train or on an exercise bike. It's not an academic paper, but it's not breezy either. The rest of this is basically a book report. If reading about this sounds interesting to you, go find this book. What I Learned from T Language fascinates. I used to think Chinese was hard. The mind-blowing craziness of some of the 6,000 languages spoken around the globe leaves my head spinning. This should be a review, but I just want to say I enjoyed it, although sometimes this was a bit dense for reading on the train or on an exercise bike. It's not an academic paper, but it's not breezy either. The rest of this is basically a book report. If reading about this sounds interesting to you, go find this book. What I Learned from The Power of Babble Languages all have a common root. That's not deducible from the current state of languages, which have had 150,000 years to diverge from the first language. Rather, it's an observation that all humans were in one place 150,000 years ago and other evidence suggests those people could talkivate. Language is a fuzzy term. Languages are just groups of dialects. The boundary between Russian and Ukranian is not clear, for instance. Or Swedish and Finnish. The "standard" dialect of a language is an accident of where the seat of power of a government was, and who wrote the book about how to write books. The natural state of human language is to not be tonal, to not have inflections, and to be in noun-verb-object word order. That's based on creoles, almost all of which have those characteristics. When people need to invent a new way of conversing, all the baroque embellishments go out the window. Name the thing, then what's it doing, then what it's doing it to. No need to use a different form of the verb depending on the subject. If you want to indicate tense add an extra word for past or future. Languages evolve and change much more quickly than most people give them credit for. In fact, the fact that English speakers can read Shakespeare, or Spanish speakers Don Quixote, is the exception rather than the rule. Being written down slows down language evolution, because writing conveys an imprimatur of correctness that people subconsciously imitate. Most languages are not written down, and after 400 years are inscrutably different from each other. 96% of people in the world speak at least one of twenty behemoth languages. 20. There are 6,000 languages in the world, and only 4% of the people in the world can't converse in one of the 20 biggies. That's interesting but also sad - the earth is undergoing a language extinction and losing lots of beautiful ways of expressing concepts. Maybe that should be a new bookshelf for my books - everything modern society is ruining. Ah, well.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Carl

    A wonderful stroll through the menagerie of world languages, with especial emphasis upon how they evolve. McWhorter’s own language is a pleasure to read. The only fault I found with the book was McWhorter’s insistence that all the world’s languages evolved from a single language. This implies that all the people on earth are descended from a tiny population – something which we do not at all know to be true at this time. McWhorter covers several topics, but a topic that especially fascinated me wa A wonderful stroll through the menagerie of world languages, with especial emphasis upon how they evolve. McWhorter’s own language is a pleasure to read. The only fault I found with the book was McWhorter’s insistence that all the world’s languages evolved from a single language. This implies that all the people on earth are descended from a tiny population – something which we do not at all know to be true at this time. McWhorter covers several topics, but a topic that especially fascinated me was his discussion of unnecessary features in languages. A Pidgin language is one that is thrown together quickly by speakers of different languages, such as slaves on a plantation. A Pidgin language only has words that are absolutely necessary, and a bare-bones structure. Pidgins evolve into Creole languages that have the full power of a mature language, but without a great deal of complexity. Next in the spectrum of complexity are the modern “big” languages, such as Spanish, Mandarin, or English, plus some other languages. At this point in the spectrum there are language features that are sometimes useful, but strictly speaking are not needed. For example, the English articles “a” and “the”. They do perform a service, but 80% of the world’s languages do fine without them. McWhorter has several other examples of such occasionally useful features – what he calls “exploring the semantic space”. Then there are features that McWhorter calls “sludge” – features that are completely useless for communication, but have somehow crept into languages. For example, genders in German or Spanish, which are only ornamentation. Languages can only be saved from sludge by large numbers of adult second-language speakers, who do not put up with the nonsense. At the far end of the complexity spectrum are extremely difficult languages spoken by small isolated tribes that never have second-language speakers. Ornamentation and sludge go crazy.

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