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The Power Of Babel: A Natural History of Language [Paperback]

John Mcwhorter
3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (35 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Jan. 2 2003

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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From Library Journal

Starting with the well-known model of relationships among languages as a family tree, McWhorter (linguistics, Berkeley) fleshes out and refines this model as he narrates development of language. He explores five main ways that languages change, such as sound change and the transformation of words into pieces of grammar. McWhorter further illuminates and compares concepts of dialect, pidgin, and Creole to demonstrate the changing nature of language. Through the discussion, he replaces the family-tree model of language relations with the more sophisticated images of a bush and a net. Numerous examples support each point, including cartoons illustrating German dialects. Indeed, the sheer weight of all the examples and detailed discussion could discourage an initially curious reader. While McWhorter reaches out to general readers by avoiding jargon and using an informal tone, brevity is needed to reach the maximum audience. Steven Fisher offers a narrative language history in History of Language (Reaktion, 1999), but while Fisher presents a slightly briefer account, it is also far more technical, with an emphasis on evolutionary theory. Not an essential purchase, McWhorter's work is recommended only for public libraries with large language collections. Marianne Orme, Des Plaines P.L., IL
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

This book is not for those uncomfortable with change. McWhorter's main goal is to convey to laypeople what linguists know about the inexorable changeability of languages. He compares our popular understanding of language to Monopoly instructions--static and written as though "from on high." But whereas Parkers Brothers is not likely to revise the rules of its game, language is as transitory as a cloud formation. From this analogy, aided by parallels with natural evolution, McWhorter shows us how the world's many dialects arose from a single Ur-tongue. He emphasizes the idea that "dialect is all there is." What we call a "standard language" is in fact a dialect that has been anointed by people in power and by cultural circumstances. All this becomes a tad academic in places, but McWhorter's use of analogies, anecdotes, and popular culture keeps the discussion lively. A worthy contribution to our understanding of the defining feature of human life. Philip Herbst
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Boring for non-neophytes Jan. 22 2003
By Fíal
I've been reading books about language and linguistics for many years and have rarely been as disappointed and annoyed by a book. If you extract all McWhorter's own self-referential little comments about his childhood, stories about television shows and comic books, and "cute" footnotes (example: 6. "Hats off to the 'Simpsons' house composer...." 7. "I like that one too." 9. "Dino fans: Yes, I know....", to take just one chapter), there is scarcely any new or interesting information in his book.
Who is the book aimed at? On one hand, the overly colloquial style ("Make no mistake: I love written language deeply and enjoy few things more than composing prose on the page" !!) argues that it is aimed at a reader who knows nothing whatever about the subject and needs to be pulled in by things like analysis of a McDonald's ad in German, badly reprinted comic strips, or an explanation that some languages have tones. On the other hand, the long, long, l-o-o-o-o-ng sections about creoles and pidgins seem to be aimed at a reader who is already fascinated by that subject.
Well, at any rate this book was NOT aimed at me-- an interested and educated amateur.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
As a man whose mother tongue is Russian I feel very happy that English is a language I learnt as foreign one and not the other way around. The reason is that grammatically English language is enormously simpler than Russian and I am a pretty lazy guy. Russian has six cases for nouns - English has none (objective case does not really count due to extreme simplicity). Russian has three genders (male, female and neutral or "middle" as high school teachers call it) - English has none (with couple of grotesque examples like ship referred to as "she"). Russian has intricate rules of how endings are governed depending on plural or single - in English it is always static no matter how complex a sentence is. After the reading of Mr. McWhorter's book I did realize that even with all its complexity Russian is hardly one of the most difficult languages to study.
This book is probably one of the very few on popular science (I guess anybody who read the book will not disagree that linguistics is definitely a science) I would advise to include into the list of mandatory reading parents create for their kids. It has an extremely rich historical background for many languages as well as for language as a mainstream mean of communication. The author is almost encyclopedically knowledgeable in pretty much every aspect of it and it reads very easily. Frequent manifestations of author's sense of humor are also improves readability.
Several things though I guess may need some clarifications.
Author mentions about Russia as about "highly insular nation for most of its history" (page 101). I have to disagree with this statement. Yes, 20th century was marked by insularism due to well-known political processes.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What was the first language ever spoken? June 11 2004
If you like to consider fascinating questions, then consider this: What was the first language ever spoken? Since its inception, our species has had the same capacity for speech yet we only have an understanding of languages that only descends a few thousand years into the past. This book excellently surveys a sampling the currently existing six thousand languages with an eye towards issues pertaining to their development and change over time. What happens when two diverse peoples start interacting? This book tells you. When happens when two similar groups of people separate? This book tells you. What was the first language? This book posits an answer. It is therefore nothing less than a wonderful introduction to a fascinating topic.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very good popular-level treatment March 15 2004
I was at first a bit unsure as to whether to give this book a full 5 stars. Sure, I liked it a lot, but it does need some negative comments here. But I decided I liked it enough to give it 5.
At first, I felt that the book was not as well integrated as I'd like. With further reading it grew on me. McWhorter covers a lot of topics in comparative/historical linguistics, and does so in a very readable style, but the breadth of his coverage seemed to me at first to be just too great. As I said, as I read further, I changed my mind somewhat. I still think that it could be somewhat better integrated, but I think it's not as badly integrated as I first thought.
One thing that I can fault McWhorter on is that if you have read his other book, "The Word on the Street," you'll find him repeating some of his ideas. They aren't at the same level of prominence: major theses he advances in the earlier book become minor points here. But it does seem he could at least change his examples. He gives the SAME example of a sentence that is traditionally considered ungrammatical which everyone naturally uses, and the SAME example of a passage in Shakespeare that is universally misunderstood because of semantic change over time, that he used in the other book. But he's not as bad as Keith Devlin, who has published popularizations of math with whole chapters taken verbatim from earlier books. So again, I can't fault McWhorter that much.
Other than these two comments, however, I have only positive things to say. I think that this book is a good treatment of historical and comparative linguistics, of dialect variation and pidgin/creole structure, and such at a level accessible to the interested general public. And so I recommend it to all interested readers.
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Most recent customer reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars An uncertain alchemy of lead and gold
Have you noticed how prevalent the word "got" has become? As in "I've got a cold" (instead of "I have a cold") or "What's he got that I don't? Read more
Published on Dec 20 2003 by Andrew Rasanen
5.0 out of 5 stars Language change is the norm
This is a very good natured book. As a child McWhorter tried to learn Hebrew. Seeing a chart at the back of a dictionary, he thought it was absolutely necessary to translate... Read more
Published on Nov. 29 2003 by Mary E. Sibley
5.0 out of 5 stars Pleasures for the linguistically curious
If you are interested in languages, then this book is definitely worth your time. As a language aficionado myself, I was most satisfied with the following aspects of The Power of... Read more
Published on Nov. 23 2003 by Edward P. Trimnell
2.0 out of 5 stars The good, the bad, and the boring...
This book is a mix of interesting "did you know" facts, mind-numbing forays into pidgin and creole languages, and evolutionist rubbish, with a LOT of private... Read more
Published on Oct. 23 2003
5.0 out of 5 stars Easy introduction into linguistics.
McWhorter creates an easy to understand intoduction to linguistics with power of Babel. He provides informaction about how language has been created through time and language has... Read more
Published on Oct. 9 2003 by Neel Aroon
5.0 out of 5 stars Fun and indulgent book for language lovers
The Power of Babel is fresh, direct and entertaining. It asks you to think about language the way we think about life: it's dynamic, always different, and ever-evolving. Read more
Published on June 2 2003 by Marc Cenedella
1.0 out of 5 stars Waste of time
There was a passing reference to "the Puliyanese of South India", which I sought to get more details about (being from South India myself) from the author,... Read more
Published on April 5 2003 by sanjay 123
5.0 out of 5 stars At last, a Stephen Jay Gould / Oliver Sacks for linguistics
For those of you who have been interested in language and yet turned off by linguistics, this is a wonderful book. Read more
Published on March 11 2003
4.0 out of 5 stars Bridges the scholarly with the popular for newcomers
After hearing Prof. McW on NPR, I picked up his book, not having read his previous work dealing with "Black" English. Read more
Published on Feb. 15 2003 by John L Murphy
5.0 out of 5 stars powerful
fascinating read. a bit repetitive on certain subjects, but that's a minor flaw given what the author achieves overall - succeeds in challenging and changing preconceived notions... Read more
Published on Feb. 2 2003 by Amazon Customer
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