The Power of Babel : A Natural History of Language, Paperback

The Power of Babel : A Natural History of Language Paperback

4 out of 5 (2 ratings)


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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Excellent book: informative and a good read. My copy is heavily marked up. Finally, I found a source that explains why languages seem to be moving from the complex to the simple. It also substantiates my theory that the 'standard' languages are simpler for outsiders to learn as adults than are regional dialects and languages from areas with less economic/political/military clout.

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The power of Babel. A natural history of language is an extended introduction to historical linguistics, particularly addressing the phenomenon on language change. The main idea proposed in the book is frightfully simple: there is no such thing as "a language", i.e. there is so much variation and language change going on at the same time, that it is hard to pin-point any language in a "finished" or fully-realized state.Despite the very simple main idea of the book, The power of Babel. A natural history of language is hard to read, and, actually, rather boring. The author really goes over-board in giving examples. It seems the author's intention in writing the book was to include examples from as many languages as possible. Other authors, notably Jean Aitchinson's Language Change: Progress or Decay, explain the theory giving a limited number of examples. Thus, McWhorter's book includes all classic examples, such as Tok Pisin, in addition to a very large selection of other languages, pidgins, creoles and dialects.The author repeatedly draws comparisons between the evolution of languages and evolution in the natural world, including concepts such as fossilization, survival and language death. Particularly the last chapter, about language death, attempts to preserve and document languages and the call to make efforts to rescue languages, closely resembles David Crystal's book Language Death.McWhorter's fascination with the multitude of languages and the chaos in development is best expressed through the titles of his chapters, as they are, for instance, "The First Language Morphs into Six Thousand New Ones" (Chapter 1), "The Six Thousand Languages Develop into Clusters of Sublanguages" (Chapter 2), "The Thousands of Dialects Mix with One Another" (Chapter 3) and "The Thousands of Dialects of Thousands of Languages All Develop Far Beyond the Call of Duty" (Chapter 5).Readers who share a fascination for language variety may enjoy the multiple upon multiple examples from many well-known and many exotic languages. However, for the reader interested in a good introduction into the subject, it may be advisable to read a book that is clear, without offering an over-kill of examples. There any many similar books about this subject available.

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