The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language

The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language

by John McWhorter


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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 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060520854
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 01/07/2003
Series: Harper Perennial
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 125,774
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.79(d)

About the Author

John McWhorter, associate professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, is the author of The Word on the Street. He lives in Oakland, California.

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Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 18 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Prof. McWhorter writes very well. The book is as entertaining as it is informative. Professionals and serious amateurs in the field will have some issues with a few points he makes, but these are trivial. I recommend this wonderful read to anyone with an interest in language -- that ought to mean anyone literate. I do have one small point in critique which is not negative at all. McWhorter is hardly chauvinistic when it comes to non-Western vs. Western or even Indo-European languages; I do wonder, however, what this book would look like had it been written by a Chinese author. Mcwhorter is obviously much more comfortable with the everyday usages of English, French, Spanish, and German. Given that this book is in English, that's OK. I suppose making the reader think about just such issues is a strength of his writing and pedagogy.
juliayoung on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
After having listened to McWhorter lecture (on audiocassette) on language, it was nice to have an actual book to read and see what he's talking about. I liked the fact that it wasn't a dry tome, but rather included some real life. A good book for a newcomer to the topic; I do agree that the chapters are long, but they're broken into 1-4 page subsections for those who can't sit and read for an extended period of time.
keristars on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The Power of Babel is pretty much what it says (or implies) on the cover: it's a book about how languages grew to the diversity they have today. It discusses various elements of language in general and shows how these elements work with actual languages (or dialects, or pidgins, or creoles), as well as how they change or morph as languages themselves change.For the most part, having had a few introductory/basic linguistics classes as well as having had a classical Greek instructor who kept inserting evolutionary linguistics into our lessons, most of the concepts were familiar to me, but I learned a lot from the examples and now feel that I have a much broader and more thorough understanding of the history of language. McWhorter is very easy to understand; he states in the introduction that he tried to keep the non-linguists in mind when writing, and so mostly avoids things like IPA or highly technical terms without explanation.It's super clear from the reading that McWhorter finds a kind of joy in studying the diversity of language, and I think that anyone who reads the book will be able to appreciate it, if not discover their own joy/fascination. But, then, I may be biased, due to my own predisposition towards being fascinated by language diversity and beauty.Although when discussing creoles, pidgins, dialects, and various elements of language (such as articles, gender markers, or different kinds of inflections) McWhorter is careful to use examples from all over the world, rather than limiting them to any particular region or type of language, I found that the book as a whole is most suitable for Americans and maybe Canadians. He includes a lot of pop culture references that I am only vaguely familiar with, but which I know to be part of the American cultural knowledge - I suspect that people from other English-speaking countries might find these references flying over their heads. That said, most of the references aren't strictly necessary for understanding, but rather provide further context for a concept, or an analogy from a different field.The primary negative to the book goes along with McWhorter's references to pop culture. He uses a friendly, familiar voice that often includes asides or digressions either in the main text or included as a footnote. While some of these are interesting notes about the topic at hand, most of them are personal comments or observations that would have done better to be left out. I suppose that other people might find them to be a sort of ...softening or something to keep the book from being too academic.On the whole, I do recommend The Power of Babel to anyone who has a passing interest in how languages have developed to where they are today. It was interesting all the way through, without any dull spots, and was easy to read. Plus, it's fairly short - only 300 pages in the paperback edition I have.
br77rino on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Great telling of the history of language, the families, the web of it, that all leads back to the Koi San and the click languages of southern Africa.
devilish2 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This to me read like a lecturer in linguistics has written a book based on his lectures for a term to slightly backward students.The subject matter is absolutely fascinating, but he tends to ram home the point he's making three times over and then when the next lecture (chapter) begins, reiterates major points from previous lectures (chapters). I read this reasonably fast and so didn't require constant reminders of what had gone before (I got it the first time usually, thank you).So if you have the stamina to cope with his repetitions, his sense of humour is lovely and comes across really well on the page (ad breaks during the lectures!).I got about two thirds of the way through this and then finally couldn't cope with constantly being treated like an imbecile, so I moved on. Maybe I should have shown more patience...
Jaylia3 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Another great one by McWhorter. Very funny and eye-opening.
Georg.Miggel on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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 ...more 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¿.
annbury on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Nice solid book on the history of language, for the non-linguist reader. Professionals may be even more put off by the fact that this is fun to read. Those who have already read a good deal about language may find more meat in Pinker or Deutscher, but this book is still worth looking at. And for those who are new to the topic, it is ideal.
john257hopper on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Although the subject matter of this book is one of enormous and lifelong interest to me, I had only dipped into this before now and this was my first attempt to read through the whole book. This largely didn't work for me - the chapters are too long and rambling, and poorly structured, with excessive use of long-winded examples. The editor should really have taken a good look at this and produced a more tightly structured book of half or two thirds the length. For this UK reader, there were also too many slightly flippant and highly irritating and unnecessary contemporary or near contemporary American cultural references that spoiled the flow of the book. Could have been a good deal better.
danielbeattie on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An enjoyable foray into historical linguistics written with the layperson in mind. McWhorter writes in an easy to understand language, constantly trying to show what he means through the use of examples from real life languages. Historical linguistics is a dry topic. Let's face it: it is just not that sexy. Most people find the endless comparisons of lists of words or bits of grammar completely boring. Though this is for the layperson this book is full of such things, so you have to be a bit of a language geek to properly appreciate this book. But you don't have to have a lot of knowledge beforehand as McWhorter does explain everything rather thoroughly. If you aren't interested in the inflections of some obscure Indian language and how it compares to the inflections of some obscure South East Asian language, then this book is not for you. But if you are into grammar and other linguistic topics then it is a delightful read. If the book had been better structured I'd given it 5 stars.
juha on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
McWhorter does what the back-cover promises: he explains how and why languages transform all the time, and thus portrays the power of Babel. The book is a pleasant read, although at times the point he trying to make drowns in the tide of examples.
miketroll on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Absorbing essay on the non-stop process of language development and change.
narikui on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I thought this book was great! It provides an entertaining guide through some of linguistics most interesting terrotories (no CFGs here!). I am particularly interested in how languages change and this book provided many examples of that process. The only negative was that sometimes there were too many examples --- which can detract from getting the general picture.
timspalding on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An exceptional book. It changed my understanding of linguistics completely (every classics grad student picks up a bit, but it's often quite outdated). The discussion of creoles was particularly engaging. McWhorter is a gem.
danbarrett on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
God, this book is amazing. It made me into more of a linguophile than I already was. Expect to read this book with your mouth gaping, and then to feel the urgent need to study several rare languages.
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regularjimmy More than 1 year ago
I had no idea that spoken communication was so complex. I have learned that language is more than the way a sentence is spoken or organized,simple words like the,is,a,are incredible how they differentiate between language to language,and even dialect to dialect.This is a great read