- Paperback: 352 pages
- Publisher: Harper Perennial; Softcover Edition edition (January 2003)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 006052085X
- ISBN-13: 978-0060520854
- Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.8 x 8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 110 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #19,695 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language Softcover Edition Edition
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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.
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.
Top customer reviews
While I enjoyed the book, I have two negative issues: first, the book is repetitive, repetitive, repetitive. The same points over and over again when it just wasn't necessary because the concepts are not that difficult. In addition, some of the examples used to were too detailed and too lengthy for the book's intended audience.
The second thing that I found a little annoying about the book is that it is filled with footnotes and asides that I'm sure the author meant to be entertaining, but they frequently came across as glib and self serving. It was as if the author was imitating David Foster Wallace - but the author is not David Foster Wallace.
All in all, it's a good book and worth reading, but if you stop reading after chapter 4 (about half way) you won't miss much.
Some others have complained about the author's use of pop culture terms and references such as the Simpsons, and while I see their point, it also didn't bother me too much. There were some that I didn't get, and occasionally I realized that even those I did weren't adding anything, but I don't think they took anything away, either. Some have also complained about using SO many different languages as examples and why he couldn't just pick something easier.. well, I think for a lot of the concepts, it would have been impossible. English, for example, doesn't have many conventions used in other languages, so he would've limited himself too much. I do, agree, however that he could have been more concise about the examples and more targeted in their use. I often found myself skimming over all those parts and unfortunately because of his writing, he wasn't clear about what exactly I should have gleaned from those examples.
So, overall, I don't think it's as bad as some make it out to be, but it's also not good. At the very least it has a lot of material and a lot of potential and so if you want to get more out of it, you can, but that extra work for the reader means it can't be rated above 3 stars. Hopefully this helps.
To steal a word from Homer which has little changed in meaning (and which I think the author would appreciate) - kudos!
This book seems to me to be very much the book form of that lecture series, and for that it is definitely worth the purchase. McWhorter's writing style is very informal and conversational when it needs to be, and very analytical and formal when it also needs to be. He does not disappoint with this or any of his other books.