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The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language Paperback – January 7, 2003

ISBN-13: 978-0060520854 ISBN-10: 006052085X

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial (January 7, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 006052085X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060520854
  • Product Dimensions: 8 x 5.3 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (86 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #40,664 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

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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3.9 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

225 of 228 people found the following review helpful By Royce E. Buehler on January 18, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Deserts of scholarly prose aside, good books about language tend to come along in two types. One examines the human capacity for speech from the fertile perspective of Noam Chomsky's theories that transformed linguistics in the 1960s. Stephen Pinker's "The Language Instinct" is the premier example. The other type, over which Richard Lederer currently reigns, diverts us with the endearing foibles of English. The first can be thought of as the molecular biology of language; the second is like Disney nature documentaries.
What's been missing is a good public account of the realm in between, corresponding to serious "natural history", as McWhorter's title has it. Neither so abstract as to be buried in "deep structure" that precedes any concrete language, nor buried up to the neck in the myopic delights of trivia. McWhorter's subject is literal "natural" "history" too - the tale of how languages, left to themselves, die and are born, mutate, divide, and intertwine over time.
So "Power of Babel" is a welcome addition. It's style is lively, even downright breezy. Its numerous examples from languages of every continent but Antarctica are pithy and aptly chosen. Partly because McWhorter makes a series of distinct points, rather than building to a climactic conclusion, the pace may begin to drag halfway through. That's fine; put it down for a while and read the latest Carl Hiassen thriller, or whatever else floats your boat. After a pause, this book ends as refreshingly as it began.
McWhorter notes that the way in which we are generally trained to think of languages has little in common with the way professional linguists think of them. What we take to be "standard" English, or French, or Russian are really anomalies.
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120 of 125 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on January 8, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Even though I don't have a particular interest in linguistics, I picked up this book, and for the first 200 pages, could not put it down. McWhorter describes the evolution of language with an awe-inspiring array of examples from a larger-than-can-be-believed selection of the world's 6000 languages. His sheer enthusiasm for his topic kept the pages flying through detailed discussions of the development of grammatical quirks in the world's "Berlitz" languages, and the development of entirely new Pidgin and Creole languages. Somewhere around page 200, however, I abruptly lost interest. Perhaps it was the repetiveness of his themes, or the density of the examples, but all of a sudden I just didn't care anymore that (to pick a random quote from the book):
"In Maori, whaka- is the 'makes it change' prefix, as in ako 'learn,' whakaako 'teach'. But then there also cases where you 'just have to know', such as uru 'enter' but whaka-uru 'assist' or tuturi 'kneel' but whakatuturi 'be stubborn'."
The bottom line: McWhorter has a gift for lighting a fire under the non-linguist lay reader, but even his engaging personality and style cannot overcome the tedium that eventually sets in as a result of his admirable refusal to talk down to his audience.
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70 of 74 people found the following review helpful By Bruce Crocker on March 24, 2002
Format: Hardcover
John McWhorter helped rekindle my lifelong love of language with his excellent book The Power Of Babel (a title pregnant with meaning, and a damned fine pun to boot). As promised by the subtitle, the book is a natural history of language, showing how a hypothesized first language could mutate into all the languages spoken on the Earth today. McWhorter has the chops as a linguist, and shows them throughout the book; he also loves language as a passionately interested human being, and this comes through in the excitement of his words on the pages. He loves a good tangent, but generally restricts them to footnotes (which I read ravenously), and any reader who finds them annoying can avoid reading them. Edwin Newman fans should avoid the book altogether; McWhorter's delight in the plasticity of spoken language and his mild disdain for the rigidity of written language will be a putoff to believers in one true standard version of a language. As a bonus, we get his very rational opinion on reports of recovered words from a Proto-World lanuage as an epilogue. I highly recommend this book to lovers of linguistics, language, words, history, culture, and details.
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38 of 38 people found the following review helpful By R. Kelly Wagner on November 16, 2005
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Yes, I've really done that. All I needed was a discussion with a fellow community band musician over whether "in excelsis deo" should be pronounced in church Latin or classical Latin, which then led to whether Russian is a dialect of Ukranian or Ukranian is a dialect of Russian (can you tell we are working on music for the Christmas season?) and I realized that here was a person who thinks language is as much fun as I do. So I grabbed his lapels and told him he had to go get this book.

I've recommended it to any number of other people as well. Here's the sorts of people who would like this book: people who have ever tried to learn a foreign language and gotten distracted by cognates, people who not only know what cognates are but go looking for them for fun, people who deliberately try to read the liner notes in their CDs in one of the foreign languages and then check back with the English version to see how far off you were; people who debate whether Shakespeare is early modern English or modern English; people whose idea of a good time is playing word games; people who have ever participated in the User Friendly message boards translating the day's strip into ever-more outlandish languages...

Have you ever read any of the "Asterix" comic strips? Would you like to see how Asterix looks in three different dialects of German?

This book is not as downright serious as some, nor as deeply footnoted as a truly academic book would be. For that, you'd want to read "Empire of the Word" by Nicholas Ostler. It's much more thorough, and more academic, and dryer, and has far less humor. On the other hand, if you want to have FUN reading about language, "The Power of Babel" is the right book.
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