The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language

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9780060520854: The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language

In this work, the author shares his expertise as a linguist to introduce us to Russonorsk, a creole of Russian and Norwegian once spoken by trading fur trappers in the summer, the ways in which Yiddish, a dialect of German, has been influenced by the grammar of Polish and a dialect of an Australian aboriginal language which only has three verbs. Along the way we learn how English absorbed French at two stages of its history, giving us Norman French warranty and the standard French guarantee, while Japanese has been infused with Chinese vocabulary at four distinct periods, and that Danish, Norwegian and Swedish are best regarded as three dialects of Scandinavian.

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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

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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