9780060520854 / 006052085X

The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language


Publisher:Harper Perennial



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About the book:

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

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