The Power Of Babel: A Natural History of Language Paperback – 6 Mar 2003
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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 relishes the world of pidgins, Creoles, dialects and slang... His enthusiasm is infectious'" (Daily Telegraph)
"'A frisky observer of the linguistic scene'" (Keith Waterhouse in the Daily Mail)
"'The breathless tour of linguistic oddities from around the globe has its own empirical delight... McWhorter is a kind of linguistic David Attenborough... The fascination is in his detail, the sheer case-by-case weirdness of languages'" (Guardian)
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Top Customer Reviews
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.
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.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
I am puzzled by the inconsistency of quality of this book. I read the kindle version, and the first think that strikes is the poor punctuation. Read morePublished on 3 Oct. 2011 by Laurent Griot
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. Read morePublished on 28 April 2011 by Simon Barrett 'Il Penseroso'
Book was delayed by snow and that it came form canada. Came in okay condition but with NO COVER SLEEVE?!! shamePublished on 28 Jan. 2011 by Coffers
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... Read morePublished on 15 Sept. 2008 by John Hopper