Book: The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language by John McWhorter

Interesting and delightfully written

John McWhorter
The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language
Perennial, 2003
ISBN: 0-06-052085-X
US$ 13.95
303 pages (main text)

John McWhorter is a professor of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley and in The Power of Babel he has written a fine book about how languages change, fragment, occasionally re-combine, and die off. What he has to say will surely not be news to a linguist or perhaps even to a well-informed amateur, but I knew only a little of the subject and was delighted by how much I learned. Mr McWhorter believes that language was invented only once in human history and that all the languages humans have ever spoken are descended from that original. During those 150,000 years, languages have developed in fascinating ways and Mr McWhorter makes a delightful guide to them. Indeed, Mr McWhorter's writing is so pleasant to read that it's easy to miss how many interesting things he has to say: about how tonal languages get their tones, about how having a written record changes how a language develops, about how the idea of a language (as opposed to a dialect) is largely a political fiction, and so on. People like me who struggle to achieve even, "The pen of my aunt is on the table" competence in a second or third language will be glad to learn that languages seem always to develop in unnecessarily baroque ways.

It's apt that there's a blurb from Steven Pinker on the cover because in my experience only he writes more engagingly about language.

The diagrams on pages 173 and 175 are pretty nearly illegible. And certain themes (including the unnecessary elaborateness of most languages) are repeated more often than necessary; it feels sometimes as though Mr McWwhorter thinks that you might be reading the chapters in random order. But those are very small complaints.

Posted: Sun - January 25, 2004 at 09:24   Main   Category: