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John McWhorter

The Power of Babel

There are about 6000 languages spoken on earth today. Where did this diversity come from? Will it survive in a world in which English is becoming ever more dominant? In The Power of Babel John McWhorter takes a wide ranging look at such questions.

The book starts with a look at how languages change and goes on to consider the formation of dialects. McWhorter makes the point that there is no effective distinction between what is a dialect of a language and what is a separate language. Although the evolution of languages is often thought of as a tree, it is clear that the branches can fuse together again - a language will inevitably be greatly influenced by neighbouring languages. Thus the book gets on to pidgins, formed when people of different languages need some way of communication, and to creoles, which are often the 'next generation' of a pidgin, and are much more like true languages. McWhorter goes on to consider how some languages develop intricate rules such as multiple genders and inflections, but, interestingly, not those of the industrialised world which are basically pretty simple but have a different sort of complexity in their use in writing compound sentences. The book concludes with a look at the possibility of finding the 'original language' of mankind.

Sometimes I found book was hard going. Partly this was because reading a book which has so many different languages can be challenging (although the book is clearly aimed at a general readership). But also I felt that McWhorter wasn't always clear where he was going - at the start he says that this won't be an exposé of the folly of blackboard grammar rules - but I thought that it often was. Overall, though I liked the book - it seemed to me that, although other books may disagree, this is what 'real linguistics' should be about.  |  Chronon Critical Points  |  Recent Science Book Reviews