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The Power of Babel Hardcover – 7 Mar 2002


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Product details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: William Heinemann Ltd (7 Mar. 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0434007897
  • ISBN-13: 978-0434007899
  • Product Dimensions: 23.4 x 15.6 x 3.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 2.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 154,063 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Amazon Review

In his enormously ambitious book The Power of Babel, John McWhorter offers an account of the first common language ever spoken by human beings, and proceeds to explore why it then fragmented into the 6,000 languages that are spoken today across the globe. As Professor of Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, McWhorter is perfectly qualified to provide a witty and accessible guide to his subject. As he puts it, "the process by which one original language has developed into six thousand is a rich and fascinating one, incorporating not only findings from linguistic theory but also geography, history, sociology. It is this fascinating story that I will share with you in this book."

McWhorter's theory of language draws explicit parallels with Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct and the biological theories of Richard Dawkins. The Power of Babel absorbs and uses everything from evolutionary theory to Monopoly and soap operas to offer a dynamic story of language which originally "split into thousands of branches that each have evolved in part to maintain what is necessary to communication but in equal part have evolved just because various semantic spaces, perceivable to and processible by human cognition but nonessential to the needs of speech, were 'there' to be evolved into". For McWhorter, languages do not "evolve"; instead they endlessly transform themselves across and into other languages. As a result, "today's languages are Polaroid snapshots of ever-mutating transformations of the first language in six thousand different directions". He controversially concludes that there is no possibility of ever recovering the original first language, but that "of the languages extant today, the ones that most closely approximate the first language are creoles".

The Power of Babel is a clever and engaging book, never dry or boring, but it sometimes overplays the grandness of its claims, which can sometimes seem rather straightforward. --Jerry Brotton

Review

'McWhorter writes with the gusto of a Victorian specimen collector, cramming the book with information to delight and instruct... -- The Times

he writes with the contagious exuberance of a born teacher... fascinating' -- The Times

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Customer Reviews

2.9 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

20 of 22 people found the following review helpful By P. Foulkes-Arellano on 23 May 2004
Format: Paperback
It's difficult to know where to begin with this tome.
It's kinda like "Will & Grace" meets sociolinguistics. There is a serious work in there on linguistics, but this is somewhat overwhelmed by McWhorter's immaculate scholarship and bizarre errors.
"Welsh [hangs on] in England" (p256) - sorry, Wales is in Great Britain not England. And there are many Welsh for whom English is not a first language.
The book is as much about a bibliomaniac sitting in his appartment with his cat, eyebrows and DVD collection, as it is about the history (or non-history)of language. Anyone hoping for a helicopter view on historical linguistics will have to look elsewhere.
There is rather more about pidgins and creoles than the book's thesis might warrant, and in the end I found McWhorter's lack of understanding of balanced bilingualism rather sad and annoying.

Overall it's a reasonably enjoyable read if you enjoy languages and 20th century TV. To be honest there are much better sources of information.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Simon Barrett 'Il Penseroso' on 28 April 2011
Format: Paperback
While I can't be as entertaining (and I'm not as well-informed) as the presumably bilingual Mr Foulkes-Arellano, I concur with his rating. There are nuggets to be found - who knew that in Australia 'words that sound similar to the name of a tribe member who died are deliberately replaced by the equivalent word from another language'? - but two pages further on you come to the leaden para about one- or two-word infinitives. Like, whatever. Better by far is Mark Abley's The Prodigal Tongue, which is superficially similar (wideranging and populist) but a fun read that doesn't bog you down - as well as winning on title! And Abley writes, well, ably, by no means a prerequisite in a book about language; academic and organisation-speak, for instance, he describes as 'Latin's bulk without its clarity'. Unimprovable.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By John Hopper TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on 15 Sept. 2008
Format: Hardcover
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.
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16 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Fíal on 16 Jan. 2003
Format: Hardcover
I've been reading books about language and linguistics for many years and have rarely been as disappointed by a book. If you extract all McWhorter's own self-referential little comments about his childhood, stories about television shows and comic books, and "cute" footnotes (example: 6. "Hats off to the 'Simpsons' house composer...." 7. "I like that one too." 9. "Dino fans: Yes, I know....", to take just one chapter), there is scarcely any new or interesting information in his book.
Who is the book aimed at? On one hand, the overly colloquial style ("Make no mistake: I love written language deeply and enjoy few things more than composing prose on the page" !!) argues that it is aimed at a reader who knows nothing whatever about the subject and needs to be pulled in by things like analysis of a McDonald's ad in German. On the other hand, the long, long, long sections about creoles and pidgins seem to be aimed at a reader who is already fascinated by that subject. Well, at any rate this book was NOT aimed at me-- an interested and educated amateur.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I was somewhat disappointed by a work that made a big claim and took an awfully long time to try and evidence it. I am smitten by linguistics ( graduate) so learnt a lot (in chunks) but could not recommend this book to the casual reader. I was particularly disappointed as McWorter has a high reputation but to misquote a critic of Mozart it just has "too many words"!
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