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The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language

3.97  ·  Rating Details ·  1,827 Ratings  ·  173 Reviews
There are approximately six thousand languages on Earth today, each a descendant of the tongue first spoken by Homo sapiens some 150,000 years ago. While laying out how languages mix and mutate over time, linguistics professor John McWhorter reminds us of the variety within the species that speaks them, and argues that, contrary to popular perception, language is not immut ...more
Paperback, 352 pages
Published January 7th 2003 by Harper Perennial (first published 2001)
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As a graduate student of historical linguistics, I often find myself asked to explain aspects of contemporary language change or the reconstruction of proto-languages to interested friends or family. Unfortunately, I don't have much of a gift of simplifying the field for average people, and I've longed for a simple introduction that I could recommend. I was very happy to discover John McWhorter's THE POWER OF BABEL: A Natural History of Language, which introduces historical linguistics, squashes ...more
Mar 02, 2010 Georg rated it really liked it
Shelves: english, non-fiction
I have rarely been that delighted and flattered by a book. McWorther points out that there is only a fluent and gradual distinction between different languages on the one hand and different dialects on the other hand. For instance he proves that the differences between several German dialects are much more substantial than those between Russian/Ukrainian, Spanish/Portuguese or Danish/Swedish/Norwegian. Since I speak at least four German dialects (Kölsch, Hessian, Platt and Hamburgian) in his vie ...more
Feb 04, 2010 Rose added it
Shelves: 2010, language
Fascinating. I would recommend this to anyone with an interest in language and linguistics.

Reading this book makes me very glad that I do not live in a world where I would be likely to emigrate from an English-speaking country to one where I needed to learn Cree or Fula to get by. In some of those languages, children don't achieve the basic level of oral linguistic competence we expect of 5-year-olds until the age of around 10, simply because the language is so complicated and requires so many i
Apr 24, 2017 Elisabeth rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2017-reads
Read this for class but I really enjoyed it! If you're interested in how language developed throughout the world, I highly recommend this book :)
Apr 10, 2010 Trice rated it really liked it
I picked this book up with a very different impression of what it would contain - I really was hoping for some sweeping historical tale of language spread and change. I have discovered that it actually takes the reader through an exploration of why and how languages change. This is helpful as well, and once I adjusted my expectations I found it interesting and informative. A lot of this is stuff I heard in college linguistics classes, though a good review, and told in an engaging way. It also ha ...more
Jul 18, 2011 Anthony rated it liked it
A good book is thought-provoking in such a way that it promotes the reader to extend the author’s argument outside the confines of the author’s subject. John McWhorter’s The Power of Babel fits precisely into this definition of a good book. McWhorter’s main argument is that languages have been in a constant evolutionary flux since the first humans began speaking approximately 150,000 years ago. Using the analogy of evolution, McWhorter demonstrates how the diversity of spoken languages have deve ...more
Feb 04, 2010 Joseph rated it liked it
Shelves: linguistics
This is a great book for non-linguists interested in language and how tens of thousands of dialects have developed and transformed throughout human history. McWhorter does a great job of making concepts about language palpable for everyday people and clearing up common misconceptions that drive us linguists c.r.a.z.y., such as the myth of "primitive" languages and the related prescriptive nonsense people constantly try to graft onto language.

As a linguist, I found several of McWhorter's ideas t
Dec 27, 2010 Ilya rated it really liked it
Shelves: linguistics
John McWhorter is a creologist (creolologist?), like Derek Bickerton; he has written a book specifically on how language changes. Words can drop unstressed syllables (as Latin became French, "femina" became "fam", spelled "femme"), a language can become tonal to distinguish between words that have become homonyms, words can be borrowed, meanings of words can drift. When creoles appear, grammar is crushed and completely recreated - or incompletely, which is what happened with Afrikaans. Writing a ...more
Apr 09, 2010 Lavinia rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, in-en, 2011
The good part is that the book is pretty comprehensible, despite its scientific purpose; the bad part - not everything is interesting [to me] and there's no way I'll remember everything I want to.
Colin Simmons
May 27, 2017 Colin Simmons rated it really liked it
4.5 stars! An excellent read about the history and mechanisms through which language changes. As a layman, this was an approachable and engaging book. McWhorter writes in a clear, straightforward, and, at times, hilarious voice. His many allusions and charming turns of phrase help us amateurs follow along joyfully.

In The Power of Babel, McWhorter compares language change to biological evolution. He makes a thorough and intriguing argument for his case. There were numerous moments throughout the
Feb 23, 2011 Keith rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is another fun language book by McWhorter. This volume is organized around looking at all the ways that languages change and evolve over time. McWhorter describes a rich variety of changes that languages and dialects can undergo. We've all heard and read about how languages can change in pronunciation over time, and how word meanings can evolve. But that is only the start of McWhorter's entertaining and informative tour through the evolution of language.

Complex language features---such as i
Sep 16, 2013 Carl rated it it was amazing
A wonderful stroll through the menagerie of world languages, with especial emphasis upon how they evolve. McWhorter’s own language is a pleasure to read.

The only fault I found with the book was McWhorter’s insistence that all the world’s languages evolved from a single language. This implies that all the people on earth are descended from a tiny population – something which we do not at all know to be true at this time.

McWhorter covers several topics, but a topic that especially fascinated me wa
Jan 30, 2013 Joe rated it really liked it
This book was a fun, simple introduction to the myriad ways in which languages (dialects) have evolved and continue to evolve. McWhorter explains this evolution with an obvious passion for his subject, an awareness that most of his readers are non-linguists, and enough cornball humor to prevent any sensation that this could be "dry" material. Most explanations come with not one concrete example, but two or three. Nor does he pull only from the "big" languages of world commerce and imperialism, i ...more
Mar 14, 2011 Jenn rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is the second of McWhorter's books that I've read, and although I liked the first one (Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue) better, this one was worth reading for someone like me, whose vocation and avocation depend on language. McWhorter does what good popularizers do: he makes complicated ideas accessible to lay readers without condescension. But I do get the feeling sometimes that he's like that guy we all knew in college, the one who was totally into computers, say, and who, unlike most comp ...more
Jun 25, 2012 Bill rated it really liked it
I enjoyed reading this book. I take away a couple of interesting insights.

(1) Languages are always in flux. We barely understand English from the time of Shakespeare because the language has been evolving since then. And, earlier varieties of English are essentially incomprehensible.

(2) Languages can spring up almost spontaneously. Bring together a bunch of people who need to live together who speak different languages and they will develop their own (primitive) pidgin language. And, if the pi
Dennis Meier
Apr 29, 2010 Dennis Meier rated it liked it
As much as I like McWhorter's writing, there are a few things I would like his editors to correct before publication:
* Convert some of the naked demonstrative pronouns (this, that, these, those) to adjectives. These pronouns frequently make a reader backtrack to recall the referent.
* Use advance organizers to give the reader a better overview of how a discussion is going to be structured. I sometimes found myself wondering where a discussion was going. A map of the forest presented before divi
Nov 19, 2008 Hailey rated it it was ok
So far this book has been alright.. it has a lot of details. Some good information if you are looking to understand why language has changed and developed throughout history. Reading this book has made me think that I really need to learn another language. -Not only to gain a new perspective and understand another culture more deeply, but also to understand English more.. As many of our words have been shared from other languages. It also has made me think about my students perspective and I hav ...more
Philipda Luangprasert
May 02, 2015 Philipda Luangprasert rated it it was amazing
Shelves: social-science
Good to read if you know more than 2 "languages". It gives a nice view how did languages get some "dammit" (difficulties) after they evolved such as conjugation, tone, gender, etc. Examples are well described.

This book explains how do languages change, how do we count it, how do they emerge and extinct. But it is not a history book explaining timeline of the language.

I gave this book 5 stars as it is a very good reading both the information and the way he presented. Although I still tend to thin
Aug 03, 2008 Renan rated it really liked it
A fascinating survey of the myriad ways humans get to communicate with each other, not as a catalog of odd behaviors but as the evidence for a rather radical thesis: there are no dialects, all are languages (or the converse: there are no languages, all are dialects, perhaps). The historical-comparative method allows Whorter to bring example after example of the richness, variability and robustness of language. I don't know if professional linguists will accept the thesis or its argument, but to ...more
Kenghis Khan
Jul 24, 2007 Kenghis Khan rated it it was amazing
This was one of the most fascinating books I have ever read. Although a specialist in historical linguistics may find little that is novel, the work introduces a whole new field to the nonspecialist in an engaging and entertaining fashion. To the credit of the author, he does point out that linguistics as a field to a large extent neglects historical linguistics. However, the author has a command for anecdote and historical perspective that renders the work quite inspiring.
Jan 26, 2009 Jaylia3 rated it really liked it
Another great one by McWhorter. Very funny and eye-opening.
Tim Fargus
Apr 12, 2014 Tim Fargus rated it it was amazing
I loved this book. It's absolutely fascinating.
cat c.
Jan 31, 2017 cat c. added it
Shelves: non-fiction
Finally, after seven years, I can mark this as read. My mouldy copy of The Power of Babel by John McWhorter has caused me to sneeze mid-sentence and scratch at my palms every few pages. Yep, gross — but well worth the little inconveniences.

I've always loved learning new languages, but English as a first language was not a matter of choice, but one of circumstance and survival. My parents moved to Hanoi from Manila when I was five and my sister and I attended an international school. I had what y
May 31, 2017 Matt rated it it was ok
Shelves: language
This book certainly has a lot going for it - it is well-researched, witty, and written in an accessible style. Unfortunately, I found it a slog to get through (and indeed, I didn't make it all that far before giving up). McWhorter presents an argument and then pounds you over the head with examples, making for a very redundant read. I guess I shouldn't be surprised - this is his basic MO on his podcast, Lexicon Valley, too, but I guess it is more tolerable in spoken than written form.
Paul  Perry
In this wonderful book about how languages develop John McWhorter does a excellent job of showing the complexity and diversity of the forms of human verbal communication. The book is subtitled “A Natural History of Language” and McWhorter uses the analogy with biological evolution and biodiversity throughout, describing how language has developed over the millennia since the first language arose (probably in East Africa) parallels the slower branching of lifeforms from the first single celled or ...more
May 24, 2017 dejah_thoris rated it it was ok
Shelves: non-fiction, history
Not a bad book but midway through I discovered that detailed linguistic analysis of word forms and grammar is not of interest to me. The overall concepts of all languages being dialects or creoles or pidgins to some degree and that all languages are constantly changing were great. But the detailed comparison of sentences in multiple languages was VERY tedious and made this a hard book to finish.
May 17, 2017 Fiona rated it liked it
Interesting, but the fact that there were some fairly basic errors in examples from Russian (покойной ночи?!) makes me wonder about the accuracy of all the other languages discussed.
Kat Kennedy
McWhorter has written a comprehensible, entrancing overview of how language has developed, changed, morphed and been reinvented millions of times in human history.

Thanks to MrWhorter, I now know that what I speak and write isn't just English. I speak a dialect of Sydney English circa 2000.

What McWhorter achieves here is a fascinating journey through many, many languages (or regional dialects as McWhorter would have it) that span across the globe and time.

McWhorter is funny. Despite being a boo
Jun 01, 2016 Stephen rated it liked it
John McWhorter presents the 6,000 languages of humankind through an evolutionary viewpoint; languages are in constant change and they vary in standard ways. Further, they interact with neighboring languages in new melds that shift vocabulary and grammar. These changes cumulate to create the variety of ways that humans use to express thoughts. In this view, all languages are dialects. There is no correct language; the standard language reflects the language of those who hold the most power in a s ...more
Apr 13, 2011 Ruth rated it liked it
In the first chapter alone, the author debunks the myth of the Eskimos' having multiple words for "snow" in their language (and it IS a myth), and manages to make the reader chuckle over various anecdotes on wordplay generally...for example, in a paragraph about the need for high or low tones when speaking the Nigerian language Yoruba: "Speak Yoruba in a monotone and the ambiguity leaves you somewhere between a Steely Dan lyric and insulting the listener's relatives." This author has a great dea ...more
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Dr. John McWhorter is a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute. He earned his B.A. from Rutgers University, his M.A. from New York University, and his Ph.D. in Linguistics from Stanford University. Before taking his position at the Manhattan Institute, he held teaching positions at Cornell University, where he held the position of Assistant Professor, and at the University of California, Berkele ...more
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“Language overlaps with culture but is not subsumed by it” 3 likes
“Don’t tell the Scandinavians I said this, but “Swedish,” “Norwegian,” and “Danish” are all really one “language,” 2 likes
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