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The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language

3.96 of 5 stars 3.96  ·  rating details  ·  1,395 ratings  ·  139 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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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
...more
Georg
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
Rose
Dec 02, 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
...more
Christopher
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
Trice
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
Anthony
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
Joseph
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
...more
Carl
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
...more
Keith
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
...more
Hailey
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
Dennis Meier
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
...more
Renan
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
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.
Tim Fargus
I loved this book. It's absolutely fascinating.
Rodrigo
Really liked the book, because it is packed with interesting facts about languages, and about their history through the centuries, and these little pieces of interesting stuff are well worth the read.

I did not give it 5 stars because i enjoyed it more like a encyclopedia, and not like a book with a well defined thesis or idea the author is trying to communicate. Of course there are key ideas that show up in the book, but that was not what amused me.

It would have been a five star book if the auth
...more
Ms.Wietecha
Very informative with a lot of really interesting discussions and theories. I really liked how McWhorter made some of the larger concepts more accessible through relevant popular culture analogies (Monopoly, "My Fair Lady," etc). This really helped me fully understand the major linguistic ideas. However, I did find some elements of the book dense, particularly in the long discussions of a particular language's etymology. I am interested in etymology, to some extent, but many of the languages sho ...more
Eric
Language is complicated, which means that linguistics, the study of language, is full of loopholes, obscurities, and near-balderdash. John McWorter, in his book, The Power of Babel, explains many of language's convolutions in an admirably clear and entertaining manner. The rapid evolution of words is a powerful force, and McWorter guides us through the evolution of Latin into its descendant tongues while keeping an eye on other, less European, language evolution as well. Creole and pidgin both g ...more
Lavinia
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.
Jean
Interesting book, although quite dense and hard going at times, no quite like a textbook but it requires perseverance at times.

In return, the author gives the reader a brief intro into the different methods by which languages evolve, demonstrated predominantly through examples in Latin, French and English. He then goes on to argue that although culture plays a role, languages essentially evolved randomly. He also spends a great deal of the book talking about dialects, Creoles and pidgins, which
...more
Hayward Chan
This book is truly eye-opening. While I was expecting a book about evolution of major languages, this book is about the evolutionary history of languages. It's amazing to see how quickly languages begin (pidgin/creole), change and diversified.

As a Cantonese native speaker, I'm really concerned about the section about how language dies. Facing fierce competitions of Mandarin from China and other European languages elsewhere in the Cantonese diaspora, it's not hard to see how Cantonese may become
...more
Jaylia3
Another great one by McWhorter. Very funny and eye-opening.
Joe
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
Carlos Burga
Hoff has an amazing style that makes even the most obscure linguistic arguments interesting. His description of how languages change and how artificial the whole idea of a “language” is, is not only fascinating but engaging to the point of drawing in the most aloof reader. Similarly, Hoff dispels the myths of language degradation and purity with such eloquence that he made this “Spanglish”-hater understand the forces behind such movements. One bone I did have to pick with Hoff is that the chapte ...more
Jenn
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
Ilya
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
Simcha Wood
John McWhorter's The Power of Babel is a fascinating survey of the history of language. He takes what is in many ways a very complex subject and presents it in a manner that is easily digestible by the non-linguist.

Frequently drawing from the examples of pidgins and creoles, McWhorter presents a detailed picture of the various ways in which languages develop and change over time, including the retarding effect that literacy can have on the evolution of a language. Central to this book is the fac
...more
Bill
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
...more
Barry
This was an interesting book that argues for a biological and evolutionary approach to language. McWhorter argues that developed countries' languages are evolving less quickly due to the mass media and writing, which oral languages have more flourishes such as prefixes, suffixes, genders, conditions, etc.
Many languages are dying, which is a shame for linguists and for the diversity of the human experience. But at the same time languages are emerging in the form of pidgins and creoles. These new
...more
Ruth
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
Paul 'Pezski' 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
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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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