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The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language [Hardcover]

John H. McWhorter
2.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)

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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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


'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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From the Publisher

How languages grow, change, evolve and die -
from Mohawk to Maori, from Milton to Tintin.

Along the way, we learn, for example, that:
Depending on the tone used in Vietnamese, da can mean ‘big toe’, ‘nostalgic’ or ‘shitty little monkey’. Tonal languages, such as Vietnamese and Chinese, are full of pitfalls for the learner…
The Thai words for fire and rim are faj and rim. English and Thai only came into contact relatively recently and the words in both languages are very old. It’s just a coincidence.
In Greenlandic Eskimo, 'I think I should stop drinking' is Iminngernaveersaartunngortussaavunga...their conception of how much you can pack into a word is rather more generous than ours.
There are roughly 6000 languages spoken round the world, but 96% of the world’s population speak at least one of the 20 most widely spoken languages. Over the next hundred years a language will die out, on average, once a fortnight…
As languages die, they decay. When the American Indian language Cayuga was nearing extinction, it had a word for leg, but none for thigh, words for face and eye, but none for cheek or eyebrow…
Languages aren’t logical. It is no argument to argue that two negatives make a positive is logical… and why are German forks female anyway?

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 shares his expertise as a linguist to introduce us to ‘the natural history of language’: to its origins, its histories, its ecologies, its politics and its geographies. Along the way we encounter Russonorsk, a creole of Russian and Norwegian once spoken by trading fur trappers, the ways in which Yiddish – a dialect of German – has been influenced by the grammar of Polish and an Australian Aboriginal language which only has three verbs…

Praise for John McWhorter’s The Word on the Street:

‘One of the best books ever written on language and public affairs. A pleasure to read.’ Steven Pinker

Witty, brilliant and authoritative, this book is a must for anyone who is interested in language

A wonderful guided tour of language and languages, as sharp and thought-provoking as Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct and as entertaining as Bill Bryson’s Mother Tongue --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

About the Author

John McWhorter is Associate Professor of Linguistics at UC Berkeley. He is the author of a book about black English The Word on the Streets. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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