Read The Power Of Babel: A Natural History of Language by John McWhorter Online


There can be few subjects of such widespread interest and fascination to anyone who reads as the strange ways of languages. In this wonderfully entertaining and fascinating book, John McWhorter introduces us to 'the natural history of language': from Russonorsk, a creole of Russian and Norwegian once spoken by trading fur trappers to an Australian Aboriginal language whichThere can be few subjects of such widespread interest and fascination to anyone who reads as the strange ways of languages. In this wonderfully entertaining and fascinating book, John McWhorter introduces us to 'the natural history of language': from Russonorsk, a creole of Russian and Norwegian once spoken by trading fur trappers to an Australian Aboriginal language which only has three verbs. Witty, brilliant and authoritative, this book is a must for anyone who is interested in language, as sheerly enjoyable as non-fiction gets....

Title : The Power Of Babel: A Natural History of Language
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ISBN : 9780099435242
Format Type : Paperback
Number of Pages : 336 Pages
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The Power Of Babel: A Natural History of Language Reviews

  • David
    2019-05-28 14:18

    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.

  • Christopher
    2019-06-21 16:27

    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.

  • Georg
    2019-05-28 17:18

    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”.

  • Rose
    2019-06-14 14:19

    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...".

  • Elisabeth
    2019-06-04 13:37

    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 :)

  • Trice
    2019-06-24 20:35

    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]

  • Nikki
    2019-06-02 20:26

    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.

  • Anthony
    2019-06-08 13:32

    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.

  • Joseph
    2019-06-12 14:27

    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.

  • Ilya
    2019-06-06 21:30

    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.

  • Lavinia
    2019-05-28 13:12

    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.

  • Colin Simmons
    2019-05-25 13:25

    4.5 stars! An excellent read about the history and mechanisms through which language changes. As a layman, this was an approachable and engaging book. McWhorter writes in a clear, straightforward, and, at times, hilarious voice. His many allusions and charming turns of phrase help us amateurs follow along joyfully. In The Power of Babel, McWhorter compares language change to biological evolution. He makes a thorough and intriguing argument for his case. There were numerous moments throughout the book where I couldn't help but exclaim with surprise or joy at the treasures he revealed. Occasionally he goes into very detailed analysis, which is interesting, but dense. Stick with it. It pays off. The last chapter is stunning (discussing language death). And the epilogue thoroughly destroys Proto-World constructions.

  • Nancy Mills
    2019-06-15 16:25

    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!

  • Keith
    2019-06-04 15:27

    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).

  • Carl
    2019-06-20 21:33

    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.

  • Joe
    2019-06-06 19:19

    This book was a fun, simple introduction to the myriad ways in which languages (dialects) have evolved and continue to evolve. McWhorter explains this evolution with an obvious passion for his subject, an awareness that most of his readers are non-linguists, and enough cornball humor to prevent any sensation that this could be "dry" material. Most explanations come with not one concrete example, but two or three. Nor does he pull only from the "big" languages of world commerce and imperialism, instead displaying the breadth of his knowledge by citing evidence for his ideas from languages large and small alike. By doing so, he teaches the reader about new languages and cultures, but also opens them up to completely different ways of thinking about communication. There is more to life than SVO, a fact that most people are surely aware of, but to see the unique permutations language takes on is truly amazing. I also particularly enjoyed the sections on pidgins and creoles, as well his theory that writing and language standardization retard the natural evolution of language. McWhorter is obviously a great teacher. At times the book is a little too heavy on analogies for my taste, though I can appreciate his desire to contextualize his concepts in ways his "students" will understand. As a lover of language, this book made me tingly. I'll definitely be flipping through it again.

  • Jenn
    2019-05-25 21:29

    This is the second of McWhorter's books that I've read, and although I liked the first one (Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue) better, this one was worth reading for someone like me, whose vocation and avocation depend on language. McWhorter does what good popularizers do: he makes complicated ideas accessible to lay readers without condescension. But I do get the feeling sometimes that he's like that guy we all knew in college, the one who was totally into computers, say, and who, unlike most computer geeks, didn't have contempt for those of us who dissolved into panicky helplessness when our papers kept printing out with formatting so bizarre we could taste the "F" we were sure to get for our lateness and incompetence. That guy not only fixed the formatting, got the paper printed in plenty of time, and was happy to help, but he explained what had gone wrong in great detail as well as describing the solution, slipping merrily into jargon and examples and illustrations that made no more sense than a recipe handwritten in Cyrillic before returning to the safely familiar territory of such advice as "if that doesn't work, hit CTR+ALT+DEL." That is, sometimes, McWhorter's examples are not that helpful. But around them are some very cool ideas about language and how it changes over time and space.

  • Bill
    2019-06-13 14:16

    I enjoyed reading this book. I take away a couple of interesting insights. (1) Languages are always in flux. We barely understand English from the time of Shakespeare because the language has been evolving since then. And, earlier varieties of English are essentially incomprehensible. (2) Languages can spring up almost spontaneously. Bring together a bunch of people who need to live together who speak different languages and they will develop their own (primitive) pidgin language. And, if the pidgin grouping continues, it will likely develop its own full blown language (known as a "creole" language). (3) Dying languages become very challenged when the number of speakers becomes low. Chances are that remaining speakers haven't learned all of the nuances of the language. And, because dying languages tend to have a lot of tricky parts to them, they are hard to learn when you're not raised speaking them. All in all, an excellent book with lots of insights into language.

  • Dennis Meier
    2019-06-19 20:36

    As much as I like McWhorter's writing, there are a few things I would like his editors to correct before publication: * Convert some of the naked demonstrative pronouns (this, that, these, those) to adjectives. These pronouns frequently make a reader backtrack to recall the referent. * Use advance organizers to give the reader a better overview of how a discussion is going to be structured. I sometimes found myself wondering where a discussion was going. A map of the forest presented before diving into the trees would help.* Ruthlessly force a new paragraph when the topic has clearly changed. * Consistently use "which" as the relative pronoun to introduce a non-restrictive modifying phrase, and set the phrase off with commas.

  • Hailey
    2019-06-16 15:37

    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.

  • Philipda Luangprasert
    2019-06-06 14:27

    Good to read if you know more than 2 "languages". It gives a nice view how did languages get some "dammit" (difficulties) after they evolved such as conjugation, tone, gender, etc. Examples are well described.This book explains how do languages change, how do we count it, how do they emerge and extinct. But it is not a history book explaining timeline of the language.I gave this book 5 stars as it is a very good reading both the information and the way he presented. Although I still tend to think that some degree of language standardization is preferred to conservation of language diversity.

  • Renan
    2019-06-12 14:14

    A fascinating survey of the myriad ways humans get to communicate with each other, not as a catalog of odd behaviors but as the evidence for a rather radical thesis: there are no dialects, all are languages (or the converse: there are no languages, all are dialects, perhaps). The historical-comparative method allows Whorter to bring example after example of the richness, variability and robustness of language. I don't know if professional linguists will accept the thesis or its argument, but to me was an extremely lucid and enlightneing book

  • Kenghis Khan
    2019-06-11 15:22

    This was one of the most fascinating books I have ever read. Although a specialist in historical linguistics may find little that is novel, the work introduces a whole new field to the nonspecialist in an engaging and entertaining fashion. To the credit of the author, he does point out that linguistics as a field to a large extent neglects historical linguistics. However, the author has a command for anecdote and historical perspective that renders the work quite inspiring.

  • Jaylia3
    2019-06-10 19:19

    Another great one by McWhorter. Very funny and eye-opening.

  • Tim Fargus
    2019-05-26 18:28

    I loved this book. It's absolutely fascinating.

  • cat c.
    2019-05-25 16:14

    Finally, after seven years, I can mark this as read. My mouldy copy of The Power of Babel by John McWhorter has caused me to sneeze mid-sentence and scratch at my palms every few pages. Yep, gross — but well worth the little inconveniences.I've always loved learning new languages, but English as a first language was not a matter of choice, but one of circumstance and survival. My parents moved to Hanoi from Manila when I was five and my sister and I attended an international school. I had what you call an "accent" when I first spoke English. Pacquiao's English. Eventually, I traded my hard p's for soft f's, but to this day I "mispronounce" certain English words I've only met on a page and very rarely encounter in speech. This is largely due to the fact that my parents were very "young/woke folks" and insisted that we spoke Filipino at home.I still have my Mother Tongue, rusty and un-native as it is, it's here. Despite the fact that I dream, think and feel in English, sometimes, I see unfamiliar English words and unconsciously drift to the tones and vocal patterns of Tagalog. This may have been a cause for embarrassment at some point in my youth, but I'm very proud to know how to speak Filipino (even if it's a kind of Pidgin version). No language is inherently "better" than another. John McWhorter reminds us that conquests and politics may have standardised languages, but like race and every nasty man made construction, there was never any hierarchy among languages (as well as grammar and spelling) until a bully/asshole insisted his way. He also notes how languages in themselves teach you very little about a culture, but has been an important tool that allows you one foot in the doorway of a new community to connect with. New languages teach you to express your humanity differently... fully. What you can't say in English, you can say in your Mother Tongue or second language.There's politics behind the lingua franca, but when you strip away the history and circumstance, "just saying", in whatever language, reveals its own beauty.

  • Amos Tai
    2019-06-04 16:25

    A cornucopia of interesting linguistic facts (you know "every" actually came from "ever each"? That most grammatical features of any old languages are not strictly necessary for communication?), this book is a fascinating and often humorous read on language change - how the 6,000 living languages today have evolved from a single one that the biological Adam and Eve spoke. It answers questions like: What processes gave rise to the highly inflected languages (typical of Europe) and highly tonal languages (typical of East Asia and Africa) that totally bewilder any new learner's mind? What factors shaped their evolution (spoiler: chance!)? How could a new language be born from the ashes of older languages when people from different origins were by fate "forced" to live with each other (spoiler: creoles)? How does writing affect grammar and the pace of language change? After all, what kind of language did Adam and Eve speak? Readers would often be surprised by the answers. P.S. I particularly enjoy how American cultural references and SAT vocab are sprinkled throughout the book, which I can imagine may not appeal to all readers.

  • Matt
    2019-06-07 16:17

    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.

  • PaulPerry
    2019-06-01 18:39

    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.

  • dejah_thoris
    2019-05-26 17:37

    Not a bad book but midway through I discovered that detailed linguistic analysis of word forms and grammar is not of interest to me. The overall concepts of all languages being dialects or creoles or pidgins to some degree and that all languages are constantly changing were great. But the detailed comparison of sentences in multiple languages was VERY tedious and made this a hard book to finish.